During the autumn, Rail North consulted the industry and wider stakeholders on its long- term rail strategy. How did the document address rail freight? It is worth starting by looking at rail freight in the north, and the future prospects for growth.

The rail strategy consultation itself stated that ‘In the North of England the direct value of the rail freight industry is £209 million per year – around 0.03 per cent of the economy of the North. The industry supports economic output of £862 million through indirect links and £1,567 million through induced links, which represents around 0.15 per cent of the economy.’ In other words, rail freight is supporting industries in the north of England in generating economic outputs some four to five times greater than the direct economic value it delivers itself.

So what are the key markets? Well, intermodal freight which represents about one third of all rail freight in the UK, moves into and from the north of England, principally from the deep sea ports at Felixstowe, Southampton and London. The region has terminals in Manchester, Leeds, Selby, Liverpool, Doncaster and elsewhere, receiving regular services hauled by most of the major operators.

Presently, the region also makes use of intermodal services for export traffic, but there is as yet little volume generated at the region’s ports. This may change in the future, as the Port of Liverpool is investing extensively in new facilities for larger container ships and associated rail facilities. On the East Coast, Teesport has also begun to attract short sea container volume, and, although the rail service that started a couple of years ago no longer runs, the potential for future services remains, particularly if shipping services increase.

Containerised traffic for major supermarket and retail chains is also being conveyed in increasing volumes through the region, with the facility at Widnes becoming an important centre. Proposals for new rail linked warehousing are also being developed at a number of sites, including Port Salford and a number of locations in the northern East Midlands.

But most of the rail freight in the north of England still remains in the bulk sector. Coal, long the backbone of rail freight continues to be imported in significant volumes with statistics from the Office of Rail Regulation showing a 9.5 per cent rise for quarter one of this year over last. Coal is imported for power stations particularly along the Aire Valley from Immingham, one of the largest generators of rail traffic in the country, and other ports such as Hull, Liverpool and Tyne Docks. From here, it moves by rail to the major power stations such as Drax, Cottam, Fiddlers Ferry and others.

Coal fired generation is of course forecast to decline significantly, as various industrial directives are implemented. Some power stations have already closed, and others are expected to follow over the decade. This will have a major impact on the shape of rail freight and the business of the operators.

However, the movement of biomass offers opportunities to replace at least some part of this volume. Biomass, which is essentially chipped wood, can be burnt alongside coal, or if power plants are converted, used as a fuel in its own right. Some of the generators have already signalled their intention to convert wholly to biomass and are now establishing the supply chain to ensure that they can meet the demanding requirements that this conversion requires. Biomass cannot be wet, and is therefore difficult to store, meaning that trains will need to run on a ‘just in time’ basis far more than the existing coal trains do. It is also less dense, and has a lower calorific value, so more trainloads are required for an equivalent output. New wagons are now being designed to try and maximise the payload, and improve loading and unloading of product.

Another significant product from the North of England are construction aggregates which are extracted from large quarries in the Peak District and East Midlands. As well as rail ballast, this material is shipped in huge quantities to the south east of England, where there is no native stone, just sand and gravel. Increasingly, rail is being used to serve other conurbations, and short distance services to Manchester and Leeds also operate. Cement runs on rail from the major works at Buxton and Hope and there are other niche flows.

Other bulk traffic includes waste, steel, petrochemicals and oil products, plus a range of smaller flows such as iron ore. You can see that the North of England is home to a diverse mix of rail freight which is important both to the region and the national economy.

Capacity and capability

So what is necessary to support this industry and ensure that it can continue to thrive on the network? The consultation gave good coverage to rail freight and its needs alongside those of passenger, noting that the key issues are likely to be capacity and capability. On congested mixed traffic routes, fitting freight alongside passenger aspirations will prove challenging – indeed the current Trans-pennine proposals for the post electrification timetable are causing difficulties in pathing existing freight services, let alone additional growth. If devolution causes new passenger services to be developed, this may become a tension across the region. There will need to be consideration of how more freight can run overnight, and at weekends, and how services can be longer and perhaps heavier. Ironically the move to biomass away from coal may help this, by its need to run on a timetable basis more closely matched to the passenger service. The consultation makes much of the need for gauge clearance, and this may well be needed on certain routes where intermodal prospers. Showing how and where freight can benefit from the electrification schemes is also necessary.

Of course, the plans for devolution are yet to be concluded, and the future governance of rail in the north yet to be determined. Should the Northern and Transpennine franchises move into local control, we would like to see a strong duty on any new body or agency to consider the needs of freight, as the Rail Regulator and others have today, and for them to become a strong advocate of rail freight in the North.

It is clear that there are strong prospects for rail freight in the north of England, and that although the possibility of devolution raises some potential tensions, the current approach from Rail North is encouraging, with good coverage of freight in the consultation and welcome consultation. We look forward to working constructively whatever the franchise outcome in the coming months and years.

Lord Anthony Berkeley is chairman of the Rail Freight Group
Rail North