Nick Andrew, Managing Director at CWE explains how important rail freight is to the UK economy

As a business working in the rail sector, it often feels like the freight industry is seen as the less glamorous cousin of passenger rail. However, the truth is that rail freight is crucial to the UK economy

According to figures from Network Rail, it brings £1.7 billion to the UK economy and not only helps relieve congestion, it significantly contributes to the drive towards net zero emissions. Network Rail estimates that each freight train takes around 76 HGVs off the UK’s roads and carries more than £30 billion of goods around Britain each year – the equivalent of 1.66 HGV kilometres a year.

1.66 HGV kilometres a year. A recent report published by the Rail Delivery Group, based on independent research by Deloitte, goes even further, estimating that rail freight delivers £2.5 billion in economic and social benefits to the UK annually. It says that rail will play a crucial role in ‘levelling up’ Britain and spearheading a green recovery, as more businesses rely on its cost-effective and environmentally friendly credentials to transport goods and other materials around the country.

While the latest figures from the Office of Rail and Road show that – like passenger trains – rail freight usage fell in 2020-21 compared to the same period in 2019-20 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, this was largely in the first half of the year. The second half (October 2020-March 2021) saw an 0.5 per cent rise on the same period in the previous year

Arguably, despite the reduced usage in the initial stages of the pandemic, during the past 18 months, the rail freight network has become even more important, transporting vital goods during a time of repeated lockdowns.

This means that any downtime can not only be costly, it can also severely disrupt many other industries – from retail to construction – that rely on it for transporting goods and materials around the country. It plays a critical role in ensuring an effective, cost-efficient, and future-fit logistics infrastructure – and in helping the UK reach its net zero goals.

This means that, given its importance, it is vital that anything that reduces downtime and keeps rolling stock on the tracks is crucial, particularly during a period of economic uncertainty. Keeping cost outlay to a minimum is paramount, which is why refurbishing – rather than replacing – vital components can help improve efficiency and streamline the supply chain, while also ensuring as minimal downtime as possible.


Reducing costs and improved efficiency

Given its critical role in the UK economy, everything in rail freight is focussed on keeping the assets running. Margins can be tight, so any solution that streamlines the process and allows the operator to optimise the performance of the rolling stock is welcome.

However, it’s often not as easy as simply providing a refurbished part. For example, a significant proportion of rolling stock is 30, 40, even 50 years old, which means it’s often really challenging to identify the make of the part that needs to be exchanged.

We recently worked with BTG Rail on a major buffer overhaul project that was not only significantly more cost-effective, it reduced downtime. We were able to achieve this due to our extensive stock catalogue: a digital database which actually acts as an encyclopaedia of parts and can be used to cross reference current and obsolete parts, so that rail operators can easily identify which are interchangeable and what they need without delaying the process.

The ‘catalogue’ complements our ‘service exchange’ – where ‘dirty’ parts can be exchanged for refurbished equivalents – and parts-testing facilities; to provide rail operators with the most comprehensive and streamlined solution possible. Each of these services helps rail customers to minimise waste and reduce product obsolescence, and can often remove the requirement for imported goods – for example, the majority of buffers are manufactured in Europe – so that cost and carbon savings can be made.


Supporting decarbonisation

Another benefit of a refurbish rather than replace approach is that it supports the decarbonisation of rail. As well as keeping more rolling stock operational, and removing more HGVs from the road, it significantly reduces waste.

Recycling parts minimises product obsolescence and saves emissions from manufacturing by reducing the amount of parts that are made new. As mentioned earlier, with parts such as buffers often needing to be imported, refurbishing removes the need for transporting parts, reducing both costs and carbon. In addition, refurbishment can often be carried out on-site. For example, we can take services including welding for on-site structural repairs. Such processes help rail operators to keep downtime low and cut both costs and carbon, by removing the need to transport wagons offsite.


Supporting the growth of rail freight

We are passionate about working with the rail sector, and freight is the backbone of the UK economy. However, where demand is high and margins are tight, innovations in refurbishment systems
and processes will not only support the industry to decarbonise, it will also help rail organisations cut costs, increase productivity and keep more of their rolling stock on the tracks – which is crucial to the ongoing health of the UK economy.

Nick Andrew is Managing Director at CWE