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2022: Britain came off the rails but freight kept going

Image: DB Cargo UK

2022 has seen it all. Elsewhere, the world seems to have come apart, but Britain has not had its problems to seek either. For a reflection of the good, the bad and the ugly of this country’s wild west of a year, look no further than the railways. Everything has happened, everything has been promised, and often nothing has happened at all. Then everyone started falling out with each other.

Britain’s troubles may seem trivial in global terms, but it has been a year with plenty to celebrate, plenty to exasperate, and plenty to leave observers just shaking their heads in disbelief. If, at times, it seemed like only a matter of time before a gang of banditos rode up, guns blazing, and hijacked a train, then perhaps it’s just as well 2022 was not a leap year. One more day, and we may all have been riding off into the wild west sunset on a rail replacement posse.

Good water, water, everywhere

It’s good to be wet. Not because of the floods that beset the Scottish summer, but finally, after ten years in the planning, Highland Spring got their terminal. The familiar mineral water brand may have suffered from the economic downturn, but that didn’t derail the long and ultimately successful opening of their rail terminal in rural Stirlingshire.

High Speed Train passes intermodal at Blackford in the Scootish highlands
High-Speed Train passes intermodal loading at Highland Spring bottling plant at Blackford in Scotland (Image John Cumming)

A modest affair, the two-track terminal finally opened after a ten-year hiatus. The invigoration of rail freight in 2022 often did not rely on bold projects and vast farms of warehousing. The tracks at Blackford village laid the way for successful timber trials from makeshift line side locations, as far separated as the north of Scotland, the heart of Wales, and the southwest of England.

Still on the waterfront

Down on the docksides, Salford remains something of a pipe dream, but the Port of Sunderland reactivated rail, and Aberdeen entered into long-term harbour development that may yet see a significant uplift in rail freight activity – albeit still restricted by gauge clearance issues. English freeport legislation is set to boost several ports and their rail freight operations. The recently inaugurated London Gateway and Southampton flow is surely just the start.

Freight train on the quayside in front of ship at Sunderland
DB Cargo Uk bulk freight train at Port of Sunderland carrying Marcegaglia tube steel (Source: DB Cargo UK / Port of Sunderland)

The south coast also benefitted from infrastructure enhancement, and work continues on the East Coast digital project. The major works of East West Rail, and of course, HS2, continued to provide plenty of work for rail freight operations. The movement of bulk materials proves that there is life beyond barging boxes around the country. Intermodal continues to be the backbone of operations, but the wholesale modal shift, so often enthused by governments, has yet to manifest itself.

Bad for industrial unrest

In a year that threatened to become open warfare between the unions and governments (particularly Westminster), the rail freight sector maintained a broadly peaceful coexistence with the workforce. As far as the public has been concerned, however, the railways have been all about strikes. The growing intransigence on each side makes this a story that will spill over far into next year.

Birds eye view of the town of Leven in Scotland
Bird’s eye view of the town of Leven in Scotland (Transport Scotland and Network Rail image)

More optimistically, the rail freight industry has been at the forefront of alternative and forward thinking. Alternative fuels, alternative working and embracing economic practice have all been on the agenda in 2022. The disappointing gap between government thinking and government doing has left many in the industry scratching their heads. The espoused demands of a net-zero economy by 2050 (2045 in Scotland) seem undermined by a still vast programme of road building and improvements, while government rail freight development is restricted to the tiny appendages agreed in the “Reversing Beeching” programme.

Don’t look bad in anger

HS2 continues to eat up the coffers and the countryside – more so the money, less so the fields – though both bring argument and confrontation. Rail freight operations continue to increase in what is, by most measures, Europe’s greatest civil engineering project. Rail freight will also support the construction of “Reversing Beeching” – a grand name for a peripheral project that hardly makes a headshunt of doing what the railways have always done – turning freight lines into mixed traffic to boost profits. Up for reinstatement is a few miles at Fawley (Southampton), and a length of the line at Leven in Scotland (not actually part of the scheme) come to mind as the only significant reopenings mentioned this year.

HS2 construction at Euston in London
Euston HS2 construction works (HS2 image)

The reign of Her Majesty The Queen came to an end. In the 70 years of the second Elizabethan age, half the network closed – even some useful bits, including the line along Royal Deeside, which her great-great-grandmother famously decreed should terminate some distance short of her Scottish castle at Balmoral. If not in the royal family’s backyard, then few could argue when the monarch’s subjects) refuse to accept new intermodal terminals at Motherwell, Northampton, St Albans and elsewhere. Perhaps 24/7 road trucking is considered a better alternative. It’s not just queens and kings of England who consider their home their castle.

Bad mishaps and missed deadlines

This year, the Derailment of the Year award goes to Carlisle. The northwest English town won by a country mile, thanks to the calamitous cacophony of cement wagons pouring down Petteril Bridge Junction and into the river below on 17 October, blocking multiple routes. The Settle and Carlisle Line put paid to heavy freight diagrams avoiding the West Coast Main Line – which retains its accolade as Europe’s busiest mixed traffic corridor. The loss of the Tyne Valley Route left both the WCML and its eastern counterpart without a handy diversionary for almost two months.

Aeriel view of the Petteril Bridge crash site showing Carlisle in background
Petteril Bridge Junction aerial shot (Network Rail image)

2022 was not short of studies and reports. Just making the cut was the Scottish government Strategic Transport Projects Review 2 (long on pages, short on rail commitments). The Integrated Rail Plan for the North and Midlands is now available, albeit not necessarily from all good bookshops – but the industry still demands better clarity than that offered by the verbose document. No idea about the scope of Northern Powerhouse Rail? No, neither has the supply chain. As for such esoteric matters as Rail Network Enhancements Programme, or the Union Connectivity Review, the suggestion is “call back in 2023, probably.”

The ugly face of…

Grant Shapps may be off the transport secretary beat, and he has since been replaced – twice – but who can forget his hoodied videos for many an aggrandising project, including promoting the competition for the headquarters location for Great British Railways. From over forty valid applications, we are down to a final six, but it’s no longer the responsibility of the “man of the people”, Shapps. We’ve had almost as many changes of transport secretary in the past twelve months as we’ve had changes of franchise holder on the East Coast in the whole history of railway privatisation – and we used to think that changed hands too often.

Network Rail chair Peter Hendy and former transport secretary Grant Shapps leave the platform at London King's Cross
Being escorted off the premises. Network Rail chair Peter Hendy (left) and former transport secretary Grant Shapps. Faces obscured for medical reasons … probably. (UK Government image)

They do say politics is stardom for the less attractive, but there are limits. Since the departure of Shapps, the transition from Network Rail (everyone’s favourite infrastructure agency) to Great British Railways (a new infrastructure agency with most of the same people and even more responsibility) has gone remarkably smoothly. Well, insofar as it hasn’t gone anywhere yet.

Relations turning ugly

Now, in actual fact, Mick Lynch is quite a handsome chap, in a rugged sort of way. In a version of the old joke, when the leader of the RMT, the biggest rail union, hears a knock on his door, he asks who’s there. “The transport secretary”, comes the reply. “No, who is it really?” He may well ask. None of the secretaries of state incumbent at the Department for Transport has deigned to knock on his door in an effort to resolve the long-running and ever more bitter dispute, which has seen the railways grind to a halt with increasing frequency, culminating in a festive shut down almost as widespread and long-lasting as the closure of government offices over Christmas and New Year.

Sunset seen from Forth Bridge
2023 and sunlit uplands ahead?  Sunrise seen from the iconic Forth Bridge (Network Rail)

At least, apart from the British economy, the only serious crash this year has been at Carlisle. The governments in Holyrood and Westminster still remain wedded to the motor car, despite espousing green credentials so obviously transparent that we would all have to be green in the ignorant sense of the word to believe their rhetoric will deliver the necessary radical modal shift to rail in anything like the measure needed to meet their net-zero ambitions. The devolved government in Cardiff escapes scrutiny for its published plans for rail development in the south of the principality and for the compromise resolution of the cross-border confrontation over access rights between Wrexham and Bidston. For political reasons, Northern Ireland remains without a government – but also for unclear reasons remains without a freight train in sight. There was talk of a bridge between there and Scotland to solve that, but that was put forward by some obscure political backbencher called Boris Johnson. Both the bridge and the backbencher have sunk without a trace. As for Grant Shapps and his hoodie videos – please, just arrest him.

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Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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