London’s rail freight profile needs adjustments to cope with demand

London’s rail freight future has been examined in detail in a new report compiled by Network Rail. Industry forecasts expect robust long-term growth in demand for rail freight services between now and 2043. The summary report, entitled The London Rail Freight Strategy Options for the Future, says the UK capital will depend more heavily on rail freight. Simultaneously, it mentions that development policy for the network needs to take greater account. 

Accommodating London’s rail freight requirements over the next thirty years demands a multi-faceted approach.  The approach will need to alleviate constraints, increase capacity, improve capability and facilitate growth. The strategy laid out in the report aims to achieve these objectives by presenting options for network enhancement schemes to the railway’s funders and highlighting the importance of the ongoing development of rail freight terminals and new markets.

London dominated by passenger projects

High-profile passenger-led projects have dominated rail development in London. Crossrail and the Southern developments of HS2 have been grabbing all the headlines in recent years. Rail freight has played a supporting role in these projects, but it is less easy to identify freight-specific developments. There is certainly nothing of the scale of those headline grabbers. has covered the London scene frequently – looking at developments such as Barking and Brent Cross. However, freight has been largely industry-led, in contrast to the large, passenger-specific projects.

Rail freight supports the booming London economy, but needs a strategic direction, say the new report from Network Rail specialists (Network Rail)

Recognising these challenges and constraints, freight stakeholders identified the development of a London Rail Freight Strategy as a planning priority. It’s not the first time the issue has been examined. The local authority’s London Assembly Transport Committee also addressed the issue. They recommended developing a joint rail strategy for London in their 2018 ‘Broken Rails’ report, with freight workstream being a key component.

Commenting on the new report, the authors say the London Rail Freight Strategy (LRFS) has dual roles. “It is a study that can produce strategic advice for the government, within Network Rail’s Long-Term Planning Process. At the same time, it can be a workstream forming part of the developing Network Rail and Transport for London’s Rail Strategy for London.”

Permanent loss of freight land and previous strategies

Pressure on land is considerable within London. The availability of suitable terminals for rail freight is a challenge in the London area. “Construction railheads need to be safeguarded and protected from inappropriate adjacent housing development”, argues the report, noting that the permanent loss of space to grow and the allowance of neighbouring residential development can lead to the imposition of restrictions on operations – such as curfews and noise limits.

“London and the South East also suffers from a marked lack of rail-connected facilities within the consumer goods supply chain”, says the report. “There are few inland intermodal rail freight terminals within the region, and most Regional Distribution Centres across the South East are served by road only. Using rail enables large volumes of the aggregates needed to make cement and other essential building materials to be brought close to urban construction sites, minimising the use of heavy goods vehicles.”

The London freight map from the report

Historical attempts have been made to strategise rail freight flows in the capital. Even before the end of the Second World War, the London Public Transport Board – the forerunner of today’s Transport for London, was drawing up plans for a dedicated freight line to run north-south, in a tunnel under the city streets. Although that line was never built, parts of it would have incorporated earlier lines which, ironically, have now been absorbed into the Thameslink passenger route.

Building on successes

The report does, however, point to significant successes from London’s rail freight operations. “Automotive parts rely on lines in London, a substantial proportion of the city’s waste is removed by rail and Heathrow airport is supplied with a fifth of its aviation fuel by cross-London flows of freight trains”, they say.

It’s a tight squeeze to fit rail freight into the London agenda (Network Rail)

The establishment of a freeport in the Thames is also expected to boost rail freight trade. The London Gateway and Tilbury docks complexes already have active rail freight operations, and the operators anticipate them to grow significantly. “The rail network in London also supports vital movements of containerised goods as a key link in supply chains serving consumers both in the South East and nationwide”, claims the report. However, the report also highlights the relationship rail freight in the capital has with what may be considered its competitors. “Import and export movements of cars and London’s construction sector depends on rail freight for the materials it needs to support the development of housing, business facilities and major infrastructure projects.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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