Heathrow line passenger trains converted for fast freight service

Interior of refitted class 319 emu ready for parcels and light goods traffic (Orion / Rail Operations Group)

Specialist carrier Rail Operations Group has moved much closer to the launch of its Orion-branded fast freight operation. What used to be called parcels, and is now better described as light logistics, needs a fleet of fast trains that are compatible with the existing network and facilities. That is the thinking behind the purchase of former passenger stock, that last saw service on the prestige Heathrow services. It is entirely possible that the electric multiple unit stock may once again grace the platforms on this line, but the ‘cargo’ will be very different.

Several carriers have announced or are in the planning stages of launching light logistics services for the UK. Rail Operations UK Limited (ROUK) have broken ranks, and completed a deal to buy former passenger EMUs from Heathrow airport to convert them for light freight use. The sight of dedicated parcels trains was common on the UK network until the privatisation era of the 1990s. Since then, the sector has been unsuccessful and abandoned to road hauliers.

Long haul passengers to parcels logistics

The details have been released of the sale and purchase agreement between ROUK and Heathrow Airport Limited, the parent company of Heathrow Express, the unique rail operator which was set up to service the purpose-built branch line into the international airport. Initially, that service ran non-stop between the airport terminals and Paddington station in west London. It was later augmented by a stopping service – called Heathrow Connect, for which these units were deployed.

Class 360/2 units at rest in a countryside location, as they await a busy new life as fast freight light logistics runners (ROUK)

ROUK has acquired the fleet of five designated Class 360/2 multiple units, plus a stock of spare parts. “The Class 360/2 units were previously used to operate the Heathrow Connect stopping services on the route between Heathrow Airport and London Paddington”, says the company statement. “The purchase of the units by ROUK follows on from the recent announcement that the company has ordered 30 Class 93 tri-mode locomotives”, they say. Gordon Cox, who is the rail operations group business development director, explained that his parent company had big ambitions for the industry. “ROUK have identified the potential of this well-maintained multiple unit fleet to assist in our transformation of UK rail freight logistics.”

Future planning

The UK network is on the verge of a new era in fast freight, carrying the sort of loads that have until now been consigned to road hauliers. However, a number of factors have combined to bring the sector back into the spotlight. Accountants have been re-examining the potential margins and returns.

All companies are emphasising their green credentials, some more graphically than others (Courtesy Varamis Rail)

The market sector – often referred to as simply ‘parcels traffic’ – was a lucrative part of railway operations for over a century. However the flexibility of road transport, and legislation which made it easier for private truck operators to beat the publicly-owned railway caused the sector to wither. With the advent of climate change legislation, greater road congestion, and a boom in online sales, not to mention the pandemic, demand has climbed significantly for fast, reliable trunk route logistics. In other words, the climate is perfect for a fresh look at light logistics.

Heavyweight interest in light logistics

Other operations are in the pipeline, all with their own business models. Other operators with dedicated trains include the established Royal Mail services which connect some major sorting offices, and the planned east and west coast services from Varamis Rail, an independent concern backed by rail freight experience, seeking to break into the market. The established InterCity RailFreight has for several years used capacity onboard passenger services for premium distribution, and has plans for collaborative expansion.

Using existing facilities and new purpose built distribution will be the shape fo things to come – even down to lockers at stations. The once familiar sight of parcels operations is set to become a post-pandemic part of the railway picture once again.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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