Rail helps UK construction industry in pandemic recovery

The construction industry is emerging from a Dickensian downturn to a post-pandemic recovery and rail is there to help. This is espwcially true for Tarmac, specialised in transportation for the construction industry. Their strategy: more rail and better rail. 

The higher they come, the harder they fall. If March represented the best month ever for construction industry activity on the UK rail network, then the collapse in April could not have been further, faster and more profound. Yet, despite being many observers choice for the industry worst placed to bounce back, construction has very much managed to take the pandemic in its stride.

Readily able to respond

Perhaps it is because the slapstick impression of every building site being an accident waiting to happen is so totally outmoded. Perhaps it is because building work in the UK is so well regulated, and safety really is first. Take that into account, and the radical changes needed to cope in new and challenging circumstances is something to which the industry was readily able to respond. No matter what the prime minister may say, Britain is already building, building, building.

Tarmac recently renewed bulk contracts with all the major UK rail freight operators, including Freightliner

“For volumes moved by the rail freight industry, March was the highest total ever”, says Chris Swan, head of rail at Tarmac, the company that describes itself as the UK’s leading construction solutions business, and also a forerunner in adopting rail as prime mover in materials transportation. “April was lowest ever, which vividly demonstrates the impact of COVID-19.”

Build back better

The UK construction industry has a couple of unique drivers that favour rail freight operations. They are the unlikely combination of the geography of the economy, and the geology of the country. The boom in the South East is built on foundations of clay soil, totally unsuited to the skyscrapers of London. It is in the North that the aggregates lie, and Swan is among an elite band of decision makers choosing rail to move those materials from quarries to construction sites. It is for good reason that Tarmac recently renewed contracts with all the major UK rail freight operators.

Chris Swan is head of rail at Tarmac

“I am hopeful of a sustained recovery because industry as a whole is moving towards more material by rail”, says Swan. “Construction has a key role to play in supporting economic recovery across the country. There is a clear desire to ‘build back better’. Embedding lower transport CO2 and getting the right materials to the right urban centres is key to this.”

Rail will play an increasing role

Tarmac has used its commercial success in winning contracts with high-profile projects like HS2 and Crossrail to leverage the position of rail as the first choice for bulk handling. Swan hopes that future infrastructure projects will plan ahead and use this model. He is confident rail will play an increasing role in supporting the wider economic agenda too. “As Northern and Midlands projects come into the pipeline, we are well placed to support the government’s Levelling Up agenda”, he says.

“Working with cities and regions as part of the new devolved railway structure stresses how important railfreight is to those regional economies, and to our supply chain as well. We need to build on the increased awareness of the importance of goods movement on the rail network resulting from the Covid crisis, and consequently help the drive towards a net zero emissions economy.”

Operational lessons embedded into working

Tarmac says it is committed to supporting UK ambitions to transition to a net zero society. “Rail freight is a key part of this”, says Swan. “Our strategy is for more rail and working with industry to do better rail. That means more freight paths for faster and longer trains that further improve the operational economics while reducing the overall carbon footprint. It means more rail connected terminals and better use of land in urban spaces for construction materials.”

Tarmac stock is a familiar sight all over the UK, including suburban Edinburgh (Simon Walton)

Swan says a lot has been learned in this year already. He wants to see the operational lessons of the pandemic embedded into working practices for the future. Fuel efficiencies, traction innovations and IT solutions are all there for the implementation. “It is important that in the drive for the horizon we don’t lose sight of what can be achieved now. Short and medium terms goals will deliver for us all in the long term, and that will be the real strength of recovery.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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