The majority of freight traffic in Britain today, both on long haul internal and between Britain and the continent, is carried mainly on lorry trailers via short sea routes – or the Channel Tunnel shuttle – not through rail and containers. There are 6,700,000 units per annum crossing the channel, 20 per cent is by container, 80 per cent by trailer (24 per cent unaccompanied and 56 per cent accompanied).

Britain’s European neighbours, by contrast, are able to carry lorry trailers on their rail networks as they have been built to a larger loading gauge than that in Great Britain.

Network Rail and British Rail before it has altered structures to make it possible to move larger container sizes but has only achieved this capability on a limited number of routes which are already heavily used by passenger traffic.

None of the existing rail routes in Britain except HS1 are cleared for lorry trailers and standard European rail wagons.

A preferential freight route

We are suggesting a preferential route at a larger loading gauge, titled the GB Freight Route (GBFR). This would require very little new route, making use instead of under-utilised and disused railway corridors that can be reinstated or enhanced without adversely affecting the operation of the existing rail network. The cost of doing this is considerably less than building a new railway across virgin land as is required for the proposed HS2 route.

The scheme would be connected to the road network close to motorway junctions. It is intended that the route would become an integral part of the national rail network and would be used by operators on an open access basis. The route could be built in stages, allowing operation to start once the first section was built.

A trial and proof of concept was undertaken in May 2012 – the first train loaded with Lorry Trailers @ P/C400 gauge (four metre high trailer) was moved from continental Europe (Antwerp) to Barking via the Channel Tunnel and HS1.

GBFR has been working with many interested parties and has gained much support from road hauliers and the customer base. Most recently, the logistics department within the major supermarkets have shown interest in the possibility of being able to move much more of their goods by rail in an uninterrupted manner within mainland Britain as well as to and from continental European destinations.

Why is GB Freight Route needed?

As mentioned, Britain’s railways, built largely in the 19th Century, were constructed to a smaller loading gauge than on the continent. Some have suggested that the gauge of existing routes could be enlarged, but that is not possible without completely rebuilding them. The cost of replacing the very many low bridges, tunnels and overhead line electrification systems would be prohibitive.

In addition, much of the West Coast Main Line, Midland Main Line and East Coast Main Line are now operating close to capacity during parts of the day. MDS Transmodal, transport consultant statisticians used by government, indicate that these three routes will be operating at near capacity by 2018.

The proposed HS2 passenger route London to Birmingham offers no help with this capacity problem, and furthermore Virgin Group has stated recently that it will want to provide more passenger services on WCML which will put even greater pressure on freight options.

The proposed GBFR would be designed with capacity to handle greater than twice the equivalent of all freight paths on the existing North South routes of WCML, MML and ECML.

In addition, we believe the route would have the capability of carrying much of the current lorry trailer traffic on the M1, M6, M40 and M74 motorways. Should a proportion of this traffic transfer to rail it would offer significant carbon savings, reduce road maintenance requirements and reduce congestion.

Legislation governing lorry drivers’ hours limits the distance a vehicle can travel in a shift and also increases the overall cost of transporting goods. Using rail for the long distance element of the journey and road for the local collection and delivery would reduce costs.

Britain on the margins

Continental European routes are being created to accommodate lorry trailers. This will leave Britain, already geographically on the periphery of Europe, on the margins of the European rail network and unable to accommodate continental gauge through-trains.

Investment by the EU and member states has enabled the recent building of the Betuweroute, a double track freight railway from Rotterdam to the Ruhr, and construction of the 35 mile St Gotthard and the 34 mile-long Brenner base tunnels, the longest tunnels in the world. Provision of this new rail route would also assist the development of the economies of the regions of England, of Scotland and of Wales.

No major impact on communities

The key to delivering the proposal is that the major part, 466 miles out of a total of approximately 480 miles between the Channel Tunnel and Scotland already exists as a rail corridor in the form of disused or underutilised railways. Of the 14 miles of new build, nine miles would be in tunnel and five miles across rural land. There is not expected to be any major impact on homes or local communities. The route has been very carefully designed and maps showing the route are available.

Terminals would be constructed at the following locations:

  • East London; in the Barking area adjacent to the M25 and A13 roads
  • North West London; adjacent to the M25 and M40 motorways
  • South Midlands; near Magna Park adjacent to the M1 and M6 motorways
  • Birmingham; adjacent to the M6 and M42 motorways and accessed via a spur from the main route
  • East Midlands; adjacent to the M1, A52 and A50 on existing railway property
  • Sheffield; adjacent to the M1 and M18 on existing railway property. The route would cross the Pennines through the Woodhead Tunnel
  • Merseyside and Greater Manchester; close to the M62 and M6 serving the North West
  • Carlisle; adjacent to the M6 and M74 on existing railway property
  • Glasgow; adjacent to the M77/M74 and M8 motorways
  • Tyne/Teesside adjacent to the A1 (M) on existing railway property

Later extensions would include:

  • a link to a terminal serving the West and South Wales adjacent to the M5 and M50 motorways

NOTE: The previous government was concerned that the proposed freight line would take up track route planned for use by High Speed 2. There is a six mile section where the two lines would run parallel; quadrupling the tracks would pose no difficulty.

How much would GBFR cost?

Estimates have been produced using costings from building the Channel Tunnel rail link (HS1). It is believed that provision of this route would be in the order of £6 billion.

A rolling road on rail

The government is looking to promote worthwhile infrastructure projects. GBFR has significant merit and should be considered. Planned investments in new passenger capacity and infrastructure are to be welcomed but more substantial rail freight infrastructure is essential if major modal shift is to occur. GBFR will provide that infrastructure.

Densely trafficked passenger routes make difficulties for freight trains and the reality is that passenger and freight traffic do not mix well. Passenger services often take priority over freight on the existing network. Among other things, the operating speeds of passenger and freight trains are also different so segregating

the two as far as possible must be the solution. GBFR offers that solution.

The needs of road hauliers and the customer base must be met. Simply investing in roads is not enough. Providing a rolling road on rail where hauliers can simply deliver lorry trailers to their nearest GBFR terminal for long-haul journeys toward their final destinations and then for a local delivery by road makes compelling sense.

Supermarket logistics experts have for some time been seeking to make much greater use of rail. The prospect for example of having wine delivered from Bordeaux to Birmingham all the way by rail would be immensely attractive. Cost savings as well as speed and reliability of delivery must and would follow.

As for government and public expenditure, there would be substantial environmental benefits as well as savings on road maintenance. Thousands of tonnes of carbon emissions would be prevented and road congestion reduced.

A positive response from government

The GBFR scheme should be politically popular. GBFR must surely play a part in our future, driving economic growth and prosperity into every part of Great Britain and helping achieve a seamless rail freight solution linking Britain’s railways to the heart of continental Europe’s rail freight network.

Further progress requires a positive response from the government and road and rail stakeholders. It is hoped that all those who believe in the scheme or who are convinced by the arguments will help to persuade government that the GBFR is not just feasible but vital for Britain’s economic future. A first priority must be to ensure that the chosen rail corridor is preserved and safeguarded within future infrastructure investment schemes.

Kenneth Russell is director of The Russell Group