Coal is why railways exist. It drove the initial need for mass transport, fuelled the steam engines and powered the industrial revolution. Even into the 21st century, coal haulage for electricity generation remained the largest railfreight stream, typically accounting for 30% of freight moved by rail in Great Britain.

Last year marked a significant change. The official National Rail Trends recorded that 2010/11 was the first year that coal lost its largest market share. Coal is not king. The crown has passed to Intermodal – more familiarly known as containers.

Is this another sign of the decline of heavy industry, of our transformation into a leisure-loving nation dependent on imports? Or is it a temporary blip reflecting volatile energy prices? The growth in container traffic is a strong trend with year-on-year growth of 7% for the last 8 years, a total increase of 70% since 2002-03.

Accommodating this growth is one of the key aims of the Strategic Freight Network. This core network of trunk freight routes was established following the Government’s 2007 White Paper, ‘Delivering a Sustainable Railway’.

Significant infrastructure improvements have already been delivered in the current Control Period 4 since 2009. Regular readers of the rail engineer will recall articles about works in Southampton tunnel over Christmas 2009 (issue 64, February 2010) and at Winchester in Easter 2010 (issue 68, June 2010). Further developments over the coming years will dramatically increase the route options for container traffic.

Anorak time

Containers are pretty similar: they have to be, for the whole concept to work. One obvious difference is colour: the choice generally depends on the shipping company’s preference. In physical terms the main classification is between short 20’ and long 40’ boxes. Beyond that, it could take a dedicated container-spotter to note any differences (try for starters).

In fact, a range of standard sizes are defined, by ISO and other standards organisations. Containers up to 8’6” height can be carried on normal wagons throughout much of the UK rail network. However, there has been increasing use of high cube 9’6” containers.

These pose a challenge for the rail industry, as the higher top corners cause issues particularly at arched overbridges. It is possible to fit the high cubes through the existing infrastructure using specialist low floor wagons. However, these generally cost more to build and maintain and reduce the potential train payload by up to one third – major penalties for railfreight operators in competition with road hauliers.

Getting high cube containers on standard wagons may require gauge enhancement works to the infrastructure, but can lead to impressive productivity increases. The route from Southampton to the Midlands illustrates this. Following opening of the route for high cube containers on 4 April 2011, rail’s market share jumped from 30% to 36%.

Thinking freight

Ian Cleland is Freight Development Manager with Network Rail. He says, “Freight tends to be the hidden side of railways, but there’s a great deal going on at the moment. Over the next couple of years we will see the creation of a diverse strategic network for intermodal traffic and a huge leap forward in diversionary capability. These are essential for dealing with contingencies and the growing demand for seven-day operation.”

Freight investment has been brought under the umbrella of the Strategic Freight Network, which is governed by an industry-wide steering group. This includes representation of freight operating companies, industry interest groups, the Department for Transport, Network Rail and others.

Cleland says, “A sustained long term strategy is essential to achieve rail freight growth. Short bursts of activity will not encourage hauliers to switch mode.”

This vision is provided by the Strategic Freight Network. Based on demand forecasts for 2030, it has nine core objectives for the development of the freight network. Gauge enhancement is one; others include increased capacity, 24/7 capability and more efficient operations.

Longer and heavier trains are considered, together with improved terminals and interchange and protected freight paths. Other aspirations include electrification of freight routes and extension of European UIC GB+ gauge capability beyond HS1.

The unified approach has been successful in garnering funding for the sector. The Government’s Control Period 4 settlement included £251 million for Strategic Freight Network improvements from 2009 to 2014. In addition, £152 million was sourced from the Transport Innovation Fund and enabled a further £72 million to be leveraged from other sources.

Working network

“The first priority has been gauge enhancement. That was the most immediate need”, says Cleland. “By 2014 we will have gone a long way to delivering high cube capability on the busiest routes where there is long term demand. After that, capacity will be the biggest issue into the next control periods”.

The programme has already come a long way. At the start of Control Period 4 in March 2009, just a few routes were cleared for high cubes. The larger containers could only travel unrestricted on routes from the UK’s busiest port at Felixstowe to London and Peterborough and on the West Coast route from London and the Thames ports to the Midlands, the North West and Mossend yard at Glasgow.

In addition to the Southampton route, April 2011 also saw completion of gauge clearance work from Felixstowe through Peterborough to the West Coast route at Nuneaton. This corridor provides a second route from Felixstowe, offering diversionary capability and avoiding London.

Other schemes are currently in hand. Site works including 16 bridge reconstructions are due to start in September 2012 on a £34 million diversionary scheme for Southampton via Salisbury to Basingstoke.

On the East Coast, it is ultimately intended to route high cubes from Doncaster via Lincoln, Peterborough and the Hertford Loop to London. A £9 million contract was awarded in January 2012 to Balfour Beatty for 18 overbridge reconstructions on the Doncaster to Peterborough section of the GN/GE line. There are strong hopes that clearance of the East Coast route northwards from Doncaster to the Scottish Central belt will be completed by 2014, although planning is still in progress.

Cross-country links are being progressed, in particular Doncaster to Tamworth / Water Orton to give a Midlands to Yorkshire route. On 29 November 2011 the Department for Transport announced funding for further gauge clearance between Leicester and Stoke, taking traffic from the North West away from the busy West Coast route through the Midlands.

Out of the way

There are many obstacles to clearing routes. Laser Rail, now part of the Balfour Beatty group, carried out a study in September 2007 for the Rail Safety and Standards Board. It considered 33,556 structures on 19 core and 11 diversionary routes. The finding was that 1,530 structures had substandard clearances for high cubes.

Reconstruction tends to be the last resort due to the expense and disruption, typically needing a 30 to 50 hour possession to redeck a bridge. Track slews and track lowers may be a preferred alternative to achieve satisfactory clearances. They can also generally be fitted into 16 hour blocks, thus restricting the disruption to Sunday mornings.

However, there is a trade-off with achievable clearance. Reconstructions will generally be done to provide W12 gauge, allowing for 2.6m wide ‘short-sea’ containers. Track lowers may only be able to achieve W10 gauge for narrower 2.5m wide ‘deep-sea’ boxes.

The decision on each route depends on cost difference between providing W10 versus W12. For example, the route through Southampton Tunnel has been cleared to W10 gauge, whereas the East Coast routes are expected to achieve W12 gauge.

Many of the upgrades are on key passenger routes. An example is the Doncaster to Tamworth section which is critical for Cross Country Trains and is sensitive to route closures. On this route, only 3 reconstructions are needed but there are 42 track lowers and slews. In addition, the trackworks will result in other works including 6 platform modifications, some signal relocations and some works to platform awnings. Most of the work on this route has been backloaded to 2013 and 2014 to assist planning, and at present around 80% to 90% of the possessions have been agreed.

Network Rail tends to use framework type agreements to cover each area. Contracting works on line-of-route rather than piecemeal has been found to create better performance and avoid conflicts between contractors.

A good example is the close working relationship which developed with Carillion leading to their innovative proposals for completing the Southampton Tunnel track lower in one Christmas blockade rather than two. This generated a huge financial saving which was a key contributor to completing the route to the Midlands £11 million below its £71 million budget.

Future schemes

The next need will be for capacity improvements. The Strategic Freight Network proposes an investment fund of £350 million for Control Period 5 from 2014 to 2019. These form part of the Initial Industry Plan of September 2011. The freight sector is currently lobbying hard on the value of the proposals.

Four principal schemes are proposed, of which three will provide capacity improvements. A second phase is proposed for Felixstowe to Nuneaton, including track doublings, remodelling of junctions, resignalling, headway improvements and line speed improvements.

Likewise, a second phase for Southampton to the Midlands will improve capacity. The proposal includes new freight loops, enhancements to existing loops to suit 775m-long trains, signalling headway improvements and bi-directional signalling.

The West Coast main line north of Preston is largely two-track and has been identified as a significant constraint on future traffic growth. Here, the emphasis is about more efficient working by providing loops in the right place to suit modern traction characteristics and timetabling. The aim is to give an overall decrease in journey times by keeping loop stops brief.

The major gauge clearance scheme is the Great Western Main Line between London, Bristol and Cardiff. It was decided that this should be considered as an incremental scheme after the completion of electrification by 2016. Bridge reconstructions required by the electrification will be constructed to suit W12 gauge for the largest containers.

Freight line

The industry plan emphasises the importance of rail freight to the national economy. Modal shift from road is a key opportunity: rail currently has only around 11.6% of the market for freight moved in the UK. The plan aims to stimulate economic growth by accommodating a 30% increase in rail freight moved by 2030, taking 15,000 lorry journeys a day off the roads.

Lindsay Durham, chair of the Rail Freight Operators Association, says, “The importance of rail freight in helping UK manufacturing grow is essential. The freight operators and Network Rail will deliver efficiencies to offer UK industry a competitive service, while focused investment in the network will deliver further significant modal shift to rail over the coming years.”

The growth of the network gauge-cleared for high cube containers is a very visible indication of the investment in rail freight. It is also symbolic of a change in perception. No longer will the railway be seen merely as a carrier of bulk materials like coal. Railways will be an integral part of a modern transport system able to satisfy the needs, locations, reliability and timescales of customers with high-value goods. And the means of transport? The ubiquitous container.