Few parts of the railway have changed as much as the freight sector. When I was young, wagonload freights could be seen across the network, even if I am not quite old enough to remember the station goods yards that are now more likely to be car parks. In recent years, the failure of industrial strategy across the UK has seen a decline in the chemicals, metals and manufacturing goods that were routinely carried by rail. And, of course, the massive reduction in coal traffic. One of my favourite work trips was to represent workers at Longannet Power Station, which always involved a look at the fantastic merry-go-round trains coming in from Hunterston.
|Hunterston coal in 1989 (Author)|
The numbers are pretty staggering. In 1974, over 7800 freight trains ran every day, falling to 1100 by 2003. I was cycling past a local freight siding this week. They have reduced from 3,000 to less than 300 over the same time period. The number of wagons has also been reduced by 90%. That doesn’t mean that freight has disappeared from our railway. It still shifts some 75 million tons a day in 600 freight trains. The average wagonload has more than quadrupled and wagons are used more intensively.
|Factory sidings near Irvine (Author)|
The shortage of HGV drivers has rarely been out of the news recently, another post-Brexit warning the UK Government ignored. However, the railway has stepped up to help, something that has been given less coverage. The Office of Road and Rail has published figures that showed a 36.5% increase in railfreight between April and June, compared to the same period in 2020. One in four containers moving to and from our ports are now carried by rail. Phase 1 of the £260m Mossend International Railfreight Park has been given planning approval in Scotland, and this includes sidings capable of handling 775-metre trains. Work has been delayed by the pandemic, but it is scheduled to open in early 2023, handling 16 trains a day, creating 2,700 FT jobs and 2,200 construction jobs. In India, they have just run a 176-wagon freight train; three trains operated as one!
Despite the demise of coal, bulk freight is still a vital rail customer. From china clay slurry used in paper whitening just up the road from me in Ayrshire to the five million tons of aggregates and 600,000 tons of cement used in construction. Without railfreight these bulk goods would put a staggering number of heavy lorries onto our roads. Other heavy loads include waste and spoil, oil (including airports), alumina, and rail infrastructure operations like ballast.
|Prestwick Airport oil siding receives a delivery (Author)|
To move forward, the rail system needs investment in rolling stock and technology, particularly ways of moving and offloading goods. More could be done in supporting businesses to move freight transport from road to rail through the Mode Shift Revenue Support grant scheme, which is very small. Although it still removes a million lorry journeys per year. There are challenges for railfreight, not least the removal of diesel locomotives by 2040. Electric power will not be extended to all freight routes by then, if ever. There are technology solutions, including electro-diesel and potentially hydrogen, but that will require more investment. Some also think that autonomous trucks are the future, but I think that requires a degree of public acceptance that is a long way off.
Research for the Rail Delivery Group shows that a modal shift towards rail freight is essential in decarbonising the freight and logistics sector and wider society. Reductions in carbon emissions can be achieved by facilitating the growth in existing flows, like intermodal and construction materials, and the development of new flows such as parcels and light logistics. The future is rail; it’s now up to the industry and governments to act.