‘Make old railheads serve future freight needs’

Passenger terminals and former smoke-stack sidings provide the clean, green alternative to city-wide congestion. An economical way to answer the needs of modern freight operations might be to dual-purpose passenger assets and recycle former facilities, say a panel of experts. They think customers could benefit too.

Two thirds of the population will be in urban settings by 2050, but cities do not actually produce anything, says Ed Clarke, the managing director of ground operations for logistics company FedEx, who make more use of rail freight than the city-dwelling public at large may realise.

Change of policy needed

Clarke was addressing an online seminar earlier this week, organised by London City legal specialists Addleshaw Goddard and the Rail Freight Group. He says smarter use of rail could get packages into city centres quicker and more reliably.

Ed Clarke of FedEx is up for an Italian job, using rail assets in Milan to get deliveries to the city centre

Current policy, says Clarke, pushes logistics hubs further and further on to the outskirts of cities, meaning more delivery vehicles are on the roads than he would like. Opening up cargo space on the rails could have a huge impact on congestion, he says. The theory goes that shorter last-mile routes means less delivery vehicles are need to fulfil customer demands.

City centre deliveries by rail

Two answers are already under trail and consideration. FedEx is trialing a rail connection from the Milan’s Malpensa airport to the city centre. Meanwhile, RailFreight.com reported at the end of last year about plans to bring light goods containers into Liverpool Street station in London, in a modern iteration of the parcels service that was once ubiquitous around the country.

A poll among industry insiders, conducted by Addleshaw Goddard and Rail Freight Group was overwhelmingly in agreement that passenger concourses could be used out of hours for urban logistics

The collaboration between Rail Operations Group and DP World ports proposes to move goods from ship to station without recourse to the busy roads between London Gateway and the City. The exercise would avoid traffic delays and emissions charges into the bargain.

Reuse railheads

Sweating the railway assets makes economic sense, but there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to logistics issues. Building rail terminal capacity from new, especially in urban locations, can be prohibitively expensive. However, Henri Muirson, director at The Northern Powerhouse Partnership says that there are opportunities to reuse existing railheads that are largely redundant.

Henri Murison, director of the Northern Powerhouse Partnership proposes examining redundant industrial railheads as economical and ready-to-go future logistics hubs

Pointing to the industrial north of England in particular, he says there are are railhead enabled sites – for example former power stations – that have rail infrastructure which could be repurposed. Remediated former industrial sites, he suggests, could prove better real estate value for developers than out-of-town green field sites. Given that the rail network has built up around industrial installations, such as former coal mines, he thinks the pathing for freight could already exist. Swap coal trains for intermodal and light goods and there is a ready-made solution to urban logistics.

Lost infrastructure but plenty of lateral thinking

Many former coal mine sites have however been redeveloped for light industrial use, and almost all have had their rail infrastructure removed. Bilston Glen near Edinburgh is a pertinent example. The site had an extensive rail layout, all of which has been removed. Ironically, a road-based logistics firm has an operation on the site.

There is an opportunity to be disruptive in the market place, agreed the panel. Where there were coal movements twenty years ago, there is infrastructure and paths that can be used for new freight movements. FedEx is just one operator that is willing to try says Clarke. Everyone is pushing at open doors, he says, and we just need to make it happen.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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