Tarmac affirms UK construction industry commitment to rail

Construction company Tarmac has strengthened its relationship with rail freight, building on recent developments in England and Scotland. The wider industry can benefit too, they say.

Coronavirus and climate change are shaping plans in the bulk construction and aggregates industry. Opportunities for Tarmac have been presented by the response to the pandemic, and they tie in with longer term corporate ambitions to reach net zero carbon operations.

Rail freight interests

In the UK, Tarmac as a brand is synonymous with road construction, even though it has a much wider corporate remit, and has modal shift on the agenda. Better known within industry as a supplier of sustainable building materials and construction solutions, the modern day company has significant and growing rail interests.

Tarmac makes trainloads of bulk materials across the country (image Simon Walton)

Already, it is one of the biggest customers of the rail freight sector, and Tarmac’s own ambitions are supporting the drive to net zero construction sector, with rail freight a key part of the company’s commitment to lower transport CO2.

20 million tonnes annually

Chris Swan, who is head of rail for the company, says the construction sector represents huge future opportunities. “Rail freight is a vital part of the UK construction supply chain, helping to move more than 20 million tonnes of building materials, such as cement and aggregates, each year.”

The size of the construction industry in London and the South East is helping to drive a greener, cleaner, approach to the logistics of construction. Despite government efforts to rebalance the national economy, the area around London still attracts around half of all development projects, and they are typically on a larger scale too.

Supplies delivery and spoils removal

Infrastructure developments in the rail sector itself provide good examples. Aside from HS1 and HS2 – both projects of national scale and importance – there is the transformational Crossrail project, touted as the biggest civil engineering undertaking in Europe.

Vast tunnelling operations under the whole of Central London are providing work for innovative bulk carriers. Add to that the congested nature of London’s existing infrastructure, and using rail for delivery of supplies and removal of spoils makes more and more sense.

Oil Oak Common, the HS2 station in the west of London, is typical of the vast scale of construction projects in the UK capital (HS2)

With around 1400 tonnes moved by each bulk freight train, there are obvious advantages over the road alternatives. London’s city streets are less busy right now, but everyone agrees that will not last. Government sources predict economic recovery will be swift in London, placing further strain on the road network.

Plans remain on track

The coronavirus pandemic may have put a pause on operations, but the construction industry has been cited as key in the economic recovery, and demand is steadily returning. “You go back to February and our plans were around a vision for a railway that is trying to decarbonise, and how that looks”, says Swan. “As we emerge from the crisis, major infrastructure and construction projects will be a vital lever in driving economic growth and many projects remain long-term in nature.”

The over-riding factor is still environmental, and the ability of Tarmac to use its rail network to support climate change targets not only makes commercial sense, but is part of an industry wide effort to support the UK government with its legally binding target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 . “We split our plan into more rail and better rail”, Swan explains. “We are working on capacity at terminals and working with operators to have the right kit in place. That means developing our ‘more rail, better rail’ strategy in the short, medium, and long term.”

Keep freight moving

That strategy translates in to measures that can be implemented with differing timescales. For example, longer trains is a realistic immediate target. In the medium term, reduced emissions could be achieved from improved motive power – even more efficient diesel engines for example.

Chris Swan is hard of rail at Tarmac (Tarmac – Ermewa composite image)

Longer term, the carbon impact of the way freight trains are pathed could be addressed by better routing, electrification and new capacity. “Even relatively inexpensive measures, like better pathing, can have an immediate benefit,” says Swan. “Keeping a freight train moving is more environmentally friendly than burning fuel to recover lost momentum.”

Rail measuring up to the future

It is all about maintaining strategic momentum too, says Swan. The rail freight sector cannot fall into complacency. “There is a plan for better rail in the freight sector, but reducing impact on the environment is very much on the agenda elsewhere too”, he says. “Rail is an environmentally better way, but other aspects of industry are making great strides towards decarbonisation. We must keep up.”

With competition from the road sector in terms of green technology advancements, rail needs to make bold strides to ensure its advantage is maintained and maximised. Quoting comparisons with road traffic has its place, but the rail freight industry needs to make sure its focused on the future and delivers a service comparable with present circumstances and not historic data.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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