British rail freight before Brexit

Brexit is coming soon. It is therefore wise to give a final account of the state of rail freight in Britain before future events come to reconsider everything.

Railway is the backbone of the British economy. It employs around 240,000 people (passengers enterprises and manufacturers including), and moves 86 million tonnes of freight each year. Contrary to what is believed, British Rail was already been reorganised into « sectors » in year 1987:

  • Trainload Freight took trainload goods, with four sub-sectors coal, petroleum, metals and construction ;
  • Railfreight Distribution took non-trainload goods, like ground operations ;
  • Freightliner took intermodal traffic
  • Rail Express Systems took parcel traffic.

In 1986, quarrying company Foster Yeoman prompted a turnaround in the reliability of rail freight by obtaining permission to run its own trains, and importing the first four EMD class 59s. Although managed by the state-owned British Rail, these units already enjoyed semi-autonomous operations. The years 1988-89 recorded nearly 149.5 million tonnes transported.

In 1996, these sectors were easily sold to new operators. Over time, the fully privatized UK rail sector has consolidated and draws the landscape we know today.

Coal, still very present in British rail freight (photo Rob Reedman via license flickr)

Coal, first victim of british politics

As in Belgium, France or Germany, the British railway lived mainly through heavy industry. A peculiarity of Britain was its policy centered on its oil extracted in the North Sea, coal mines as well as coal-fired power plants. The famous British Rail service ‘merry go round’ thus maintained a typical traffic of the second industrial revolution. It was undermined by Thatcher’s policy with the closure of the collieries and the social seism that followed in the 1980s.

From this troubled period, there remained in Britain only coal-fired power plants. It was without counting the new ecological influence which imposes now to put an end to this last avatar of « the old world of the XXth century ». And this is noticeable in the recent figures.

The state of the art today

Most freight operations are run by ten private sector companies. There are no public subsidies for freight operations nor franchising operations, as for passenger services. British companies operate totally open access, in an area restricted to Great Britain alone.

The two largest freight operating companies (FOCs) are DB Cargo and Freightliner, with Colas Rail, Direct Rail Services (DRS), GB Railfreight (GBRf) and « the others » accounting for most of the rest. Various other companies run rail operations within their own manufacturing or production sites. Despite the diversification of the rail freight sector, heavy industry still strongly marks transportation figures.

Since the mid-1990s, the operators have invested over £2 billion in new locomotives, wagons and other capital equipment to enhance capacity and improve performance. They have introduced new wagons to cater for new flows, for example wagons designed to handle biomass and aggregates traffic. They have also introduced new diesel locomotives to haul longer and heavier trains, from the now omnipresent Class 66 to the Class 70 ‘Powerhaul’ locomotives for Freightliner and Colas, as well as DRS’s Class 68 and electric/ diesel Class 88 locomotives.

Freightliner and one of his Class 66 (photo Rob Reedman via license flickr)

Total volumes increased by over 65% from 13 billion net tonne kilometres in 1995/96 to over 22 billion in 2014/15. In 2015/16 volumes fell by about 20%, primarily due to a decline in coal traffic to power stations, but 2015/16 total volumes are still over 30% above 1995/96 levels. The decision to phase out coal-fired power stations in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions continues to affect the amount of coal lifted.

The biomass, waste and automotive sectors have also seen strong growth since 2011. The total for other goods lifted has been steadily rising in this period (2009-10 to 2016-17), however, they also recorded a decrease of 3.1% on last year to 65.3 million tonnes in 2017-18.

Globally, between the early 1980s and the mid-1990s, rail’s share of the market fell, but it has since increased its market share of the transport market from about 8 per cent to 11 per cent in 2010, in terms of tonne kms moved. Freight train movements totalled 224,000 in 2016-17, an average of 613 a day. Nonetheless, road continues to dominate the domestic freight market, accounting for approximately 89% of the transport market (68% of the total domestic freight market with coastal shipping and pipeline traffic).

The construction sector is using more and more railway. It could replace the decline of coal and ore.

It is therefore interesting to see how British rail freight has been able to gain market share in other sectors that are no longer part of heavy industry. The table below shows the distribution of rail freight. We see that intermodal transport is dominant. On the other hand, one can question the international sector, barely 3%, which indicates that serious efforts must be made with rail policy via the Channel Tunnel. We are very far from the dithyrambic projections of the 90s.

Sectoral breakdown for the period 2016-2017 (Network Rail)

Consumer goods

As reported Network Rail in a study, the size of the manufacturing sector has declined as a proportion of the national economy and there has been an increase in the volume of imported manufactured goods. This has affected rail freight in two ways:

  • Traditional bulk markets for rail, such as ESI coal (both domestic and import) and raw material supply for domestic steel production, have diminished substantially ;
  • The Import of goods by major ports, increased.

The net effect of these changes, together with the recent decline in flows linked to coal imports for the electricity supply industry, is that intermodal freight has become the largest single commodity sector conveyed by rail.

The ORR also notes a growth in the share of consumer goods. Recent rail freight figures show a positive future for rail freight in consumer goods and construction materials, which together now account for almost two-thirds of UK rail freight. With a 40% share of all freight moved by intermodal rail over the 12 months to April 2017, consumer goods sector recorded its highest share since 1998-1999 – and the highest for any sector since 2006-2007. Executive director of Rail Freight Group Maggie Simpson said: « The investment and efforts of train operators and their customers has delivered record-breaking results in construction and intermodal traffic, which we hope to see continue in the years ahead.» This is verified with the good performance of intermodal traffic. Port traffic accounts for 80% of total UK intermodal traffic, highlighting the importance of the container sector.

The port of Felixstowe is heavily focused on intermodal transport and has up to 66 daily trains from three terminals (photo portofFelixtowe)

The Port of Felixstowe is Britain’s largest container rail terminal with record-breaking throughput, and the broadest and most frequent range of services of any port in Britain. Three operators – DB Schenker Rail (UK), Freightliner and GB RailFreight – share the 66 daily arrivals and departures that connect 15 domestic destinations throughout Great Britain. Such traffic demonstrates that the vitality of the intermodal transport between the port sector and the terminals inside the country is possible when we give the possibility to various entrepreneurs to manage and create quality, with good prices, in the transport of maritime containers.

The Freightliner operator, which already existed in British Rail’s time, currently operates around 100 daily trains through a network of 12 railway terminals, 8 of which are owned. It carries nearly 770,000 containers a year.

Another sector is large-scale retailers, whose logistics are known to be an essential factor in the price war between large retailers. For this reason, this sector often avoids the use of rail, which is considered less flexible and too slow. He prefers to use road transport and avoid too large stock, very expensive. This is not the case for Tesco, the UK’s leading retailer with 12.5% ​​of the market and 3,500 points of sale throughout the UK. As a responsible retailer, Tesco places a high priority, according the entreprise, on meeting their environmental obligations. Working in partnership, Direct Rail Service and the Stobart Group have combined the very best of their road and rail capabilities to create a tailor made solution to meet Tesco’s requirements. The end result is a service which is providing highly efficient distribution between Tesco’s Daventry depot and Glasgow-Mossend. « This new service is part of our on-going commitment to be zero carbon by 2050, » said Nigel Jones, Tesco’s UK Logistics Director.

Stobart Group’s intermodal rail services operate 5 services a day, based at their hub rail terminal at DIRFT with rail services reaching all parts of the UK including Scotland’s central belt, Inverness and Aberdeen in the north down to Cardiff, South Wales and London and the South East. Stobart also has its own container terminal at Widnes (photo, between Manchester and Liverpool). This terminal is connected daily to Southampton and Felixstowe.

The Widnes terminal, entirely a property from Stobart (photo Stobart)

According Network Rail, statistical data attribute 20% of intermodal traffic to flows between non-port terminals.

Available capacities and trains length

In 2014, Network Rail created a ‘Capacity Management’ work stream with the aim of reviewing unused freight schedules. This was a collaborative work stream between Network Rail and all freight operators, intended to generate additional freight capacity without the need for infrastructure enhancements. In April 2017, the British network operator announced that almost 4,700 reserved train paths remained unused. According to the infrastructure manager, the spare capacity is attributable several factors including more efficient freight operations with longer and fuller trains, and better productivity with fewer, part-loaded freight trains, reducing wasted capacity. Paul McMahon, Network Rail’s managing director for freight and national passenger operators, said to Container-Mag: « Capacity has been freed up for the whole railway but essential capacity is reserved for freight operators. This is important given the need to support the growth of freight on the network to support the economy. »

A key driver of rail freight’s advantage relative to road is its ability to carry a greater volume of goods per journey. Where the length of trains is restricted by infrastructure limitations, this competitive advantage is diminished. Train length capability is also reliant on adequate loading and unloading facilities at ports and terminals, highlighting the need for integration across the industry.

Relatively light goods, like swap bodies, containers and automotive, are the main beneficiaries of longer trains as the traction power necessary to haul them is more readily available. For intermodal trains, the current aspiration from Network Rail is to achieve a length of 775m (including locomotive). A long-term aspiration exists across the industry to research the possibility of running trains of even greater length, for example 1500m for automotive trains.

Retrouver des capacités sur le réseau britannique (photo Bob « the lomond » via licence flickr)

And tomorrow ?

We would have liked to start the year 2019 with a note of hope. We can’t brings to that, because Brexit is certainly not a positive reference. Rail Delivery Group is clear about the impact of Brexit on UK rail freight: « The smooth flow of goods between the UK and EU is critical to the transport sector. Any changes to the tradin relationship with the EU will be faced by the transport sector in the first instance. The Channel Tunnel is the only physical link between Britain and mainlined Europe and one in four containers that arrive in British ports make their onward journey by rail. »

The port sector is expected to be hit hard in the truck segment from Europe via ferries. However, these trucks do not take the train in Britain because of a problem of gauge. Only swap bodies could be impacted. On the other hand, the containers are rather part of the ‘overseas’ market and will probably have to be treated with new customs rules. This may further obstruct the port terminals and an impact on rail traffic is to be expected. The Rail Delivery Group therefore proposes the creation of new Railway Customs Areas (RCAs) at rail freight terminals to avoid the need for a single border checkpoint.

It only remains to wait for the 2019 figures to get an idea of ​​the situation ….



References :

Network Rail – Freight Network Study

Les utilisateurs du fret ferroviaire

Raildeliverygroup – Brexit and the rail industry: policy asks


ScotRail invests for the future

(version en français)

ScotRail is not very well known on the Continent, but well in Great-Britain. This public rail network covers the whole of Scotland and is very dynamic. Scotland is a constituent nation which is inside the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Since the late-1990s, a system of decentralisation has emerged in the UK, under which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have each been granted some measure of self-government within the UK, which is often referred to as « devolved powers ».

Railways are « devolved powers ». The Rail franchising system in Great Britain was created by the Railways Act 1993. Franchising allows a private operator to provide rail services on the rail network. Scotland, which has its own government, is therefore free to operate its rail network as it sees fit. He also decides who will operate the rail network.

The scottish style

The ScotRail brand was created by British Railways Scottish Region manager Chris Green in the mid 1980s to provide a distinctive brand for the rail network in Scotland. The brand has developed and is still in use today. Since 2008, it is the permanent name of the Scottish franchised rail services, regardless of the train operating company that operates them.

The railway network is owned by the national Network Rail, the non-profit organisation responsible for all of the railway infrastructure. Rail services are provided under franchises awarded by the scottish government. The Scotrail franchises have been operated since 1997, successively by National Express, First Group and currently Abellio. However, despite the arrival of Brexit, the London government does not plan to transfer the Scottish part of Network Rail to the Scottish regional Government.

Transport Scotland was created on 1 January 2006 as the national transport agency of Scotland. It is an Executive Agency of the Scottish Government and accountable to Scottish Ministers. In September 2010 Transport Scotland merged with Transport Directorate of core Scottish Government. They continue to be called Transport Scotland although they now have responsibility for all transport related issues across Scotland, including aviation, rail, transport policy,…

Network Rail Scotland looks after Scotland’s railway infrastructure – 2.776km of railway lines, including the world-famous Forth Bridge that connects passengers in Fife, north of Edinburgh. Main railway lines:

– the East Coast Mainline ;

– the West Coast Mainline ;

– the Highland Mainline from Perth to Inverness ;

– the Borders Railway from Edinburgh to the Borders ;

– the West Highland Line from Mallaig and Oban in the Scottish Highlands to Glasgow ;

– the Edinburgh to Aberdeen from Edinburgh to Aberdeen.

The Forth Bridge is a cantilever railway bridge across the Firth of Forth in the east of Scotland, 14 kilometres west of Edinburgh City Centre.

ScotRail provides over 94 million passenger journeys each year, with over 2,300 intercity, regional and suburban rail services a day and more than 340 stations. In october 2014, the Dutch company Abellio wins the new franchise, and It was confirmed that the main lines are the aim of the « Rail Revolution » desired by Scotland. The franchise, previously held by First Group, runs until 2025. The decision to give the £2.5billion contract to Abellio has triggered a political row.

Their bid included plans for cut-price fares to jobseekers, free Wi-Fi and advance £5 fares between Scots cities along with a vow to put on more trains. But transport unions and Labour condemned the award of the 10-year deal to a company based overseas.

Electrification programme

Of the 2,776 km of rail track in Scotland 25.3% (711 km) is electrified. The Glasgow main station had already received the 25kV catenary in May 1974 as a part of the electrification of the WCML. Edinburgh Waverley station received his 25kv in 1991 only, on the occasion of the electrification of the ECML. As a result, there was no electrification between the two cities, which came only late through the EGIP program.

Work completed during 2014 on the £80 million pound electrification of the Cumbernauld line, which was the first major electrification element of the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP). In October 2017, the Glasgow-Edinburgh line was entirely electrified. The fastest journey times between Glasgow and Edinburgh taken now 42 minutes. This represents a major step in a country that remains historically focused on diesel railways.

New rolling stock

With around 7,000 new rail vehicles on order to replace more than half of the passenger rolling stock fleet, Britain’s trains are about to change as never before. Scotland is no exception. Scotrail is transforming all of its rolling stock: Hitachi Emu’s class 385 comes to regional services, old HSTs reconfigured for long distance services and new train sets for the Caledonian Sleeper, the night train to London.

New regional trains

the Edinburgh to Glasgow main line is currently operated by a mix of trains. As well as the Class 170 DMUs that have been operating the service since 2000, ScotRail has arranged for Class 380 EMUs (released from Ayrshire and Inverclyde services) and Class 365 EMUs (surplus units leased from Eversholt) to operate the service.

Hitachi Rail Europe supplies Abellio with 70 electric multiple units (Emus), which will form 46 three-car trains and 24 four-car trains (234 rail cars). These will run on the newly electrified Edinburgh-Glasgow line as well as on the Stirling – Alloa – Dunblane lines. In July 2018, Scotrail/Abellio commissioned its new trains, the Class 385. These seven-coach trains (set 3 cars + set 4 cars) have 479 seats which is 27 per cent more than the Class 170 DMUs operating on the route. Eight-coach Class 385 trains (2 four cars) have 546 seats.

The new Class 385 trains started rolling on the Glasgow-Edinburgh electrified line (photo ScotRail)

Long distance services

The train service between Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen currently has 15 intercity roundtrips, including 3 trains from London by the East Coast franchise. Between Glasgow and Aberdeen, there is a clock timetable with 16 round trips on weekdays, by the Class 170 Turbostar Dmu.

It is worth remembering that ScotRail do not serves intercity links with London. The Glasgow-London line is managed by the West Coast Main Line franchise, managed by Virgin until 2022. The Edinburgh-Newcastle-York-London route is managed by the most controversial franchise: East Coast Main Line. 

In 2012, Transport Scotland published the results of its rail passenger service consultation. This considered how the railway should develop and the types of passenger services required. One conclusion from this consultation exercise was that passengers traveling from central Scotland to Aberdeen and Inverness much preferred to travel in Virgin Trains East Coast High Speed Trains (HSTs) from Glasgow or Edimburg than ScotRail’s Class 170 diesel multiple units (DMUs). Transport Scotland discussed how to change its long-distance rail transport. Its results were incorporated into the specification for the ScotRail franchise which was renewed in 2014. New trains were an option, as was the reconstruction of what many consider to be the best passenger train ever built in Britain: the HST 125.

Nearly 70 venerable – and iconic – HST 125 trains are being replaced in Britain by the Hitachi 800 class IETs. They will not be scrapped because Scotrail is taking over 54 engines and 121 cars, leased from Angel Trains, to form 17 Intercity trainsets of 5 cars and 9 sets of 4 cars. They are therefore shorter sets framed by two engines. Angel Trains Chief Executive Malcolm Brown said: « The fleet will undergo interior and technical improvements prior to entering into passenger service, to ensure that it can meet the requirements of modern inter-city travels. »

New look for the shortened HST 125 (photo ScotRail)

The DG Design office was taking part in the new HST branding under the Scotrail brand. DG Design has created a new brand identity for the HST service, developing the exterior livery and interior colour palette & finishes. The livery features iconic landmarks representing the seven major cities served, reinforcing its inter-city credentials. The technical refurbishment of the power cars was done through Brush Loughborough while the Mark III cars were refurbished at Wabtec Rail in Doncaster. ScotRail’s ‘new’ HSTs will provide 40 per cent more seats on their intercity routes, which will no doubt soon be filled. As a result of this new generation of HSTs, Scotrail has been able to connect the seven main Scottish cities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Perth, Stirling, Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness as early as 2018-2019. The existing Dmu’s will be introduced on shorter routes with more frequency, which is beneficial for everyone.

The line to Aberdeen was this week the first to receive the HSTs for ScotRail – a strategic decision as they already run on the route (operated by Virgin Trains East Coast). The SR’s Haymarket depot will be the future home of the HSTs. Inverness and Aberdeen depots currently service Virgin East Coast HSTs, ScotRail DMUs and Mark 3 Caledonian Sleeper coaches. Soon they will handle East Coast Class 800 bi-mode units, ScotRail HSTs and the new Mark 5 Caledonian Sleeper coaches as well as some ScotRail Dmus.

This new HST fleet will provide a 33 per cent increase in capacity on Scotland’s internal inter-city network. Their high power-to-weight ratio will deliver the reduction in journey times required by the franchise specification and ensure the severe gradients in the highlands are not a problem.

That said…

However, it remains surprising that ScotRail does not put more cars on trains that many customers find crowded. Austrian Railjets have at least 7 cars. Most Intercity in Germany or Italy have 6 to 10 cars. As the British gauge bans double-decker rolling stock, ScotRail, like all companies in Britain, can only rely on longer train lengths and higher frequency. The option of HST 3 or 4 cars is certainly economical, but it would have been better to remain with the complete 8 car’s set. High frequency also means sufficient tracks to receive all trains in Glasgow and Edinburgh stations, and a process that allows these trains to quickly leave these major stations to allow free tracks for subsequent trains, and so on. In many stations in Europe, some platform have a sufficient lenght which accept 2 different train sets, as on the dutch network.

New night trains

The London-Scotland night train exists since … 1873! In 1995, shortly before privatization, the service of the two night trains was transferred to ScotRail, which relaunched the service in 1996 under the name of ‘Caledonian Sleeper’. In 1997, the new ScotRail franchisor, National Express, took over the operation, followed in 2004 by First Group. In 2012, ScotRail announced that the Caledonian Sleeper would be a separate franchise. The Scottish government announced a massive investment of £ 100m (€ 127m in 2012). In May 2014, the franchise was awarded to Serco with a commitment to replace the Mark 2 and Mark 3 coaching stock by 2018.

The Serco Group is active in multiple UK sectors like in the health, immigration, utilities and transportation sectors. It forms with Abellio a 50/50 joint venture that has exploited the Northern Rail franchises (since taken over by Arriva) and is still active on Merseyrail (Liverpool). On 31 March 2015, Serco Caledonian Sleepers Limited took over the operation of the Caledonian Sleeper. 

There are two Caledonian-Sleeper, which serve two distinct areas of Scotland. The first leaves London Euston at 21h and serves the north of Scotland in three branches to Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William. The second train is very late departure and leaves Euston at 23:50 with two branches that separate at Carlisle: one to Glasgow, the other to Edinburgh. Both trains will be fully renewed with an investment of £ 100 millions (€ 110 million), covered by the £ 60 million from Scottish Government. This resulted in the order of 75 cars at the Spanish manufacturer CAF, in the Basque country. The first five cars were delivered last July and are currently being tested on the UK network. Peter Strachan, president of Serco-Rail UK, is determined to make Caledonian-Sleepers « the new symbol of Scotland ». The first full sets are scheduled for May or June 2019.

One of the CAF Mark 5 vehicle of the new Caledonian Sleeper (photo CAF)
Design of the interior of the sleeping-car (photo CAF)

Next step

British railway infrastructure manager Network Rail is planning to invest £4bn in Scotland railways between 2019 and 2024 in a bid to maintain and enhance the rail network in the area.

On the political side, Transport Scotland has published its strategy for investment in rail improvements that sets out how funding will be targeted over the next 10 years. The new Scottish Government is to form an infrastructure commission to advise ministers on how spending should be directed to provide most economic benefit. According Public Technology, the challenge with that though ‘is trying to imagine what some of those challenges will be in the next 20 years, with autonomous vehicles coming down the line, the way we can use digital to help manage traffic systems, new rolling stock, behavioural changes around how people use public transport.

Of course, the franchise system is at the heart of a battle that is shaking all British politics. Labor wants to renationalize ScotRail as in the good old days. Alex Hynes, Managing Director of ScotRail Alliance, responds : ‘we are delivering one of the biggest upgrades to our network since Victorian times. That demonstrates the hard work of our dedicated staff at the ScotRail Alliance, a partnership between Abellio ScotRail and Network Rail. But we aren’t complacent. The major investment we are making now will mean faster journeys, more seats and better services for our customers.

We will see if these good arrangements will transform Scotland’s rail transport. ScotRail will need to pay close attention to the availability of rush hour seats. A sustainable development policy, which is announcing even more passengers on the railways, must not ignore the problem of capacity, both at infrastructure level and at train level.


Scotrail HST, par le bureau DG Design

ScotRail’s ‘new’ HSTs – Rail Engineer

Strategic Business Plan 2019 – 2024: Scotland 

Abellio in Scotland

Chemin de fer n°566, 2017/5 (french magazine)

Public Technology