UK 2021 – Another hard day’s night or a ticket to ride?

If there is one recurring theme in Britain’s rail freight crystal ball for the next 365 days, it is that change is on the way. New plans for old traction, old plans for new tracks. If this sounds a lot like 2020, you might be right. Read on to find out how right you are. Here are the most anticipated rail freight developments in the coming twelve months.

Everything possible for Network Rail. “The development of existing and new flows of freight traffic by rail”, says Charley Wallace, freight director at Network Rail. “We anticipate that an opportunity may exist, working with our customers and stakeholders to both continue the lengthening of certain flows of traffic and also see new services operate. The logistics and courier sector is one that with our customers, we have been having progressive early discussions about”, she says.

“We turn on the music about a mile out, Charley.” Network Rail adopt high-flying hi-tech to keep the rails surveyed.

Looking forward to her first full year in post, Wallace expects to bring her customer-facing passenger experience to the freight table in ways that are historically familiar, but radical thinking for 2021. “With potentially less future usage of major city centre stations, exploring their use with a sector that needs fast and efficient methods of getting their consignments into towns and cities, are conversations we have been part of and keen to develop further early in 2021.”

Every mile to last mile connectivity

There’s plenty to unpack in Charley’s predictions, and Jeff Screeton, managing director at Intercity Railfreight (ICRF), is ready to do just that. ICRF has over a decade of experience in rapid light goods, and they’re looking to expand. “What I’m especially looking forward to is the fruit of a partnership between ICRF and If Vehicles in terms of delivering the first intermodal urban freight system”, he says. “A handling method designed to capture space on trains – any train – trams, buses and cargo bikes.”

Screeton is not alone. Taking a different approach, and taking up some of those paths that Wallace alludes may become available, Phil Read, the managing director of Varamis Rail, is looking to connect major UK cities with his own fleet. While Screeton has the benefit of passenger-service frequency levels, Read is planning on controlling his own timetable. “We’re anticipating a launch in May, to coincide with the new national timetable, and put our own dedicated express light goods trains on routes connecting London, Birmingham and Scotland with an all-electric, all parcels and light goods service.”

Big projects, little projects

Already that looks like a level of collaboration that’s taking the rail freight industry into new territory for the big ticket items: HS2, Crossrail, Ely, and Mossend all move on in 2021. Top of the list, Europe’s biggest civil engineering project, the new high-speed line between London and Birmingham, is set to demand 180 bulk freight trains to the HS2 main compound in Buckinghamshire in next 12 months – equivalent to 12,670 heavy trucks that would otherwise be on Britain’s roads.

Crossrail – the new underground line through London – will require a constant supply of tunnel lining sections, which have already started arriving by rail and barge. Meanwhile, Network Rail are about to enter the second stage of consultation on the wide-ranging upgrade to routes around Ely, relieving long-standing freight delay issues.

Chris Polack wants quick wins with high value returns on investment

Felixstowe – via Ely – is also in mind for Chris Polack, of Bootham Network Solutions, and the Chartered Institute of Logistics Rail Forum. “There are a number of low cost, quick win, no regret, electrification schemes that will make an immediate difference”, he says. In addition to upgrading the branch to Britain’s busiest container port, Polack points to several more easy wins. “London Gateway Branch; Hare Park to Leeds; Middlesbrough – Darlington; and Acton to Willesden in west London. “Each of these schemes would enable current diesel hauled deliveries to switch to zero carbon electric haulage. Fast forward to December 2021 and I would like to be able to say that the best thing about 2021 was that one or more of these schemes was underway.”

More voltage for electrification, higher power for automation

Going much further, David Cross at DC Consult, wants a comprehensive programme of electrification, not unlike the plans already announced for almost the entire network in Scotland. “More progress with infill electrification in order that more freight can be electrically hauled, and back to the carbon reduction agenda”, he says. “We estimate that to electrify just over 600 miles would mean  the majority of main freight routes would be able to use electric locomotives, dozens of which are in store waiting for the call. HM Treasury should get on with this from early in 2021.

With trials underway and roll-out planned for 2021, there is a whole suite of software and connected hardware solutions coming to the railway in 2021. Cross thinks computerisation, such as the planned revamp of the short-notice booking system, could make a significant difference to capacity, planning and viability. “I’d like to see further cooperation between the rail freight companies, as happens in road haulage”, he says. “There’s more to do here. For example empty slots on services used by another freight TOC, to improve utilisation, financial results as well as offering a better service to the customer. Cross also wants the grant aid, and Mode Shift Revenue Support schemes “properly reviewed to support new freight to rail.”

Back to school for class of ’21

If the railway is to take advantage of technological enhancements, lifelong learning and professional development is going to be even more important in 2021. “The Apprenticeship College are launching a new level 5 Professional Coaching programme that I am very excited about”, says Tilly Allen, whose company, The Apprenticeship College, is set to play an important up-skilling role with the industry in the coming year. She says their learning programmes will reflect the most pressing professional needs for everyone. “Our programmes will have an added focus on well being too which I think will be really important for us all moving forward.”

Jon Bunyan starts 2021 for the first time without a Freightliner train behind him – unlike in this picture.

Professional development is on the mind of Jon Bunyan, newly ventured into consultancy. It may not be unique to 2021, but the coming year may see many more professionals taking their future into their own hands. “I’m planning for the success of my consultancy venture”, he says. “After 36 years within the rail industry, I now find myself outside, looking in and, more than ever, hoping still to make a difference.”

Alternatives fuels speculation and new service anticipation

DB Cargo cooked up some interest with their trials of organic ‘HVO’ fuel, as an environmentally more acceptable alternative to diesel. Chief executive Andrea Rossi said the results were extremely promising, ahead of anticipated commercial use in 2021. “The Government has set the rail industry an incredibly stretching target to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The results of our trial are very exciting, and we have many more initiatives in the pipeline to further reduce our environmental impact.”

Not so much new fuels, it’s new services for GB Railfreight’s often-quoted managing director John Smith. He’s convinced that the industry will grow, and wants his company to be at the forefront. “Despite the economic challenges we all face, GB Railfreight continues to grow as a business. I couldn’t be prouder”, he says.

“Our members are telling us of ambitious plans for the year ahead”, says Maggie Simpson at the Rail Freight Group. “Demand for extra trains is already apparent as businesses review their supply chains and look to decarbonise operations”, she added. “As we move into 2021, I am sure that rail freight will continue to prosper.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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