While its sister entity, passenger rail, is rarely out of the headlines, rail freight remains in the background despite being one of the major success stories of rail privatisation…

It is interesting to note that since rail privatisation the rail share of the freight market has grown to eleven per cent; and that this has been achieved by carrying 70 per cent more goods whilst utilising 30 per cent fewer train paths. One of the reasons for this success is the recognition of where rail freight can operate most effectively. Rail freight traditionally works best for medium to long haul where there are high volume commodities such as: coal, biomass, aggregates, intermodal (both deep sea and UK domestic), metals, petrochemicals and automotive.

Rail freight provides a valuable element to the UK’s transport strategy. The government’s ongoing commitment to development of the Strategic Freight Network, extending to March 2024, funded for delivery by Network Rail through the High Level Output Statement (HLOS) process, is testament to this. Rail freight provides a number of benefits including national productivity, highway congestion relief and environmental through carbon reduction. The key objectives are for loading gauge enhancement, ability to handle longer trains, an improved capacity on key freight routes and improved key junction capacity.

Freight terminals – the start and the end

While the investment into the rail freight network is a major element of a successful rail freight strategy, it is not the only one. Terminals are another key element which need to be carefully developed to provide both a convenient source point and a desired end destination for freight.

Typically freight terminals fall into one of three broad categories:

• port terminals

• major multi-train terminals at strategic rail freight interchanges

• discreet product specific terminals such as aggregate rail heads and oil terminals.

While network enhancements are predominantly government funded, freight terminal development is reliant on private sector financing. This means there is a different set of criteria when determining whether to invest in rail freight terminal provision/enhancement for each of the three categories.

Port Terminal investment

For port operators the decision to invest in rail terminal provision/enhancement will typically be driven by the end customer commercial opportunity. The commercial viability requires the port to be able to receive and secure the onward transhipment to end destination of large import (or export) product volumes (containers, coal, petrochemicals etc) in the most efficient way possible. While onward transhipment from the port can either be by road or rail, rail freight offers important benefits to both the port operator and end customer where the commodity is bulk/high volume.

However, the port needs to ensure that it can handle and turn around the freight, and there needs to be the infrastructure to allow the freight to then be moved to its end destination or point of use. There have been a number of cases recently where the port or port operators have invested significant capital sums in enhancing elements of port handling capability while failing to adequately address how the rail terminal will handle and turnaround the forecasted volumes. This has a negative impact on the return of investment on the port enhancement.

One solution is to build in capability checks at the design stage. The use of tools such as Opentrack, used on the Port of Tyne and Immingham terminals; network pathing port using Railsys to create an end user terminal; optimal terminal to terminal network operational interfaces (through optimised signalling and arrangements) and the most suitable rail terminal design allow model terminal throughputs to be effectively checked before construction begins.

Strategic Rail Fleet Interchange Terminal investment

The strategic rail fleet interchange terminals are often part of a larger warehouse logistic park development. The developers are usually specialist developers who have experience of occupier requirements. They have seen an increasing trend towards inclusion of rail, sometimes incentivised by planning authorities, with typical planning consent requiring the developer to have the associated rail terminal in operation before he can build out/occupy more than 50 per cent of the warehousing on the park.

The provision of rail infrastructure is a necessary part of the build, however it does not attract a rental premium. However, from the developer’s perspective there is a shift from seeing rail as necessary to gain planning towards a key business support.

The problem for the developer is identifying the most effective way of designing the rail element. Traditionally they would employ a specialist rail advisor to look at rail design or to take the strategic rail fleet interchange proposal through planning; and expect Network Rail to lead on the rail connection development work (including pathing analysis). This however has become more challenging over the last few years due to Network Rail’s Infrastructure Projects organisation being primarily focused on the development and delivery of HLOS works.

The strategic rail fleet interchange developer therefore needs to think about how the rail advisors can model the rail terminal throughput (using Opentrack modelling) and to link this through the terminal so that it interfaces with the network, using a tool such as Railsys pathing analysis.

Product Specific Terminals

The number of new single user rail terminals being built is fairly limited; there are no major corporate expansion programmes or specific government incentive schemes to drive demand. Instead the work is typically around upgrading or expanding existing single user rail heads, particularly for those terminals built over a decade ago where connections and the terminal configuration is sub optimal both for the volume of potential traffic and increased network traffic pressures. The option for product specific terminal owners and operators is around the use of terminal modelling, terminal design and network pathing analysis to maximise terminal throughput.

Next steps

For anyone operating terminals within the rail freight space, whether port terminals, strategic rail freight interfaces or product specific terminals, the pressure to ensure an optimised terminal design, modelling and network pathing analysis is critical.

The answer may well be a move from isolated rail advisors who are only able to focus on specific areas of the project, and to create collaborative teams who are able to bring together their specialist skills to the client. This approach not only ensures the terminal operators, owners and developers are minimising the risk around their rail freight investment, it also ensures they are receiving best-practice advice from initial design, through modelling and network pathing, and on to securing planning (where required).

As the impact of Brexit is still an unknown, and the pressure on investments and budgets continues, being able to create an effective rail freight design is essential. Whatever happens though a clear rail freight approach is key.

Max Bladon is Principal Consultant, Atkins Transport Consulting & Advisory