Freight train passing under footbridge with sunset in background

UK rail freight volumes slightly down for the quarter

Sunny day at Slateford. A freight train passes though a suburban station in Edinburgh, Scotland. Image: Simon Walton.

Official statistics published today (6 June) by the Office of Rail and Road show that UK rail freight took a slight dip, year on year, in the last quarter (to March 2024). Nevertheless, containers and construction traffic are still, by far, the dominant sectors. The two sectors account for around two-thirds of all freight “net tonne-kilometres” moved. That reflects the two things rail freight does best: weight and distance.

Despite the government hiatus, with the general election called for 4 July, the Office of Rail and Road has published its statistics as normal and right on time. While the ORR notes that rail freight services have a punctuality problem, the sector still delivered its trains within fifteen minutes of booked arrival, more than nine times out of ten. The ORR says that it is still historically poor. Most operators and customers would express less concern.

The rail freight boom has yet to materialise

The rail freight sector appears to be stubbornly static. According to the Office of Rail and Road, the overall volume of freight moved has changed very little, year on year. Although most commodity groups had a reduction in freight moved volumes compared with the previous year, that doesn’t tell the story of how rail freight is made up, day to day. Stand by any lineside, and the chances are the only freight you’ll see is either an intermodal consist and aggregates train or anything else.

Figures: © ORR.

Between them, the intermodal and construction sectors make up two-thirds of all rail freight traffic. Both those sectors have held up well despite a sluggish national economy. Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect anything more in the current circumstances. However, the various governments throughout the UK have set stringent net-zero carbon targets. As yet, they seem reluctant to foster an equally significant switch to rail freight.

Construction is the real upward mover

Intermodal maritime fell slightly by 0.4 per cent. The slightly pessimistic (but statistically accurate) ORR say that was the lowest recorded volume for ten years, aside from the pandemic. Intermodal still had the largest share (35 per cent) of all freight moved between April 2023 and March 2024. The market share remains unchanged from a year ago.

Head on shot of aggregates train being loaded by mechanical shovel with Industrial buildings in the background
Construction and major infrastructure projects have helped the rail freight sector. On the HS2 project, another spoil train loads up for departure from Willesden in northwest London. Image: © HS2.

Construction, which had the second-largest share of all freight moved (34 per cent), saw a quarter-on-quarter increase of eight per cent. That took construction to the largest volume recorded since the time series began in April 1998, a total of 5.30 billion net tonne-kilometres. The market share for Construction traffic increased by three percentage points compared with the previous year, suggesting that the move is permanent.

Modal shift beginning to take off?

However, those seeking to grow the scope of the rail freight sector would appear to have a difficult task on their hands. Rail freight’s overall share of goods and tonnes moved around the UK remains at a single percentage point. Apart from the big movers in the sector – containers and construction – there is very little to cheer. Most commodity groups had a reduction in freight moved volumes compared with the previous year.

Figures: © ORR.

National economic factors have played a part in stifling rail freight growth. The move away from heavy industry has been a persistent loss of traffic for rail freight. That trend continues. For example, volumes of metals dropped by 10 per cent compared with the previous year. That obviously reflects the health of the steel industry (which some commentators say is on life-support).

Weight and distance statistics, not the whole picture

It is not all a gloomy picture – far from it. Other sectors – such as domestic waste and petrochemicals – are down. That, however, could be interpreted as a greener economy overall, where less is thrown away and less fuel is used. There is also some good news on the modal shift. Express logistics may still be in its infancy, so not yet making an impact on “weight and distance” statistics, but there is other inland good news. Intermodal non-maritime had the largest year-on-year percentage increase, rising by 40 per cent compared with the previous year.

In fact, Intermodal non-maritime was the only other commodity group where volumes have risen in this quarter’s statistics. “This was the first time intermodal non-maritime has exceeded one billion net tonne-kilometres in a year since the time series began, in April 2010,” notes the ORR in their statistcis set. “There has been a modal shift taking place, notably in the food and drink sector, as companies switched their trunk haulage from road to rail.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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