Rail Freight Interchanges: What Next?

September 6, 2010

In July and August two Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI) proposals have been refused planning permission following on from major planning inquiries: Radlett and Kent International Gateway (KIG). To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one rail freight interchange may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness!

Where does this leave plans to develop a network of SRFIs as a foundation for significant rail freight growth?

The Context

Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges are large facilities which include both rail connected warehousing and an intermodal terminal. A good example is DIRFT, near Rugby.

It is recognised that developing more distribution centres with rail access could unlock huge modal shift from road to rail.  For distribution companies and retailers locating at an SRFI gives them the best possible choice between road and rail.  This is why SRFIs and rail freight terminals are strongly supported by government transport and planning policy.

The Recent Planning Decisions

Both proposals were in areas with significant impacts on the countryside and local communities: Radlett on the Green Belt, KIG impacting a nearby Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and heritage areas.

Clearly there are very few locations in England where you can build a huge development of warehouses and rail facilities without having a major impact on the local environment and communities. This is recognised in the planning process, and SRFIs can still gain planning permission provided they can demonstrate the need for the facility and that there are no suitable but less harmful alternative sites available.

Kent International Gateway

KIG’s “needs case” was partly based on an assumption that the facility would be used to intercept goods from Europe and consolidate them in warehouses for onward distribution by road and rail. However, the planning inspector reported that he was not satisfied that the proposal would function as an SRFI in this way.

The KIG argument is related to a strategy known as “port centric distribution” where National Distribution Centres would be located at ports rather than, as today, being concentrated in the Midlands. The inspector did not accept that this would be applicable to KIG. His key concerns appear to be the location of the terminal (not at a port), and the lack of precedent for distribution by rail from port centric facilities.

Nor did the inspector agree that KIG would be well placed to function as an SRFI serving London and the South East. In particular, he cited the Strategic Rail Authority’s (SRA) SRFI policy which suggested that such facilities should be near to the M25. More on the SRA policy later!

As a result the inspector turned down the appeal and the Secretary of State agreed, and so planning permission has been refused.

Radlett Freight Interchange

This proposal can be regarded as being particularly unfortunate, as it has been the subject of two major planning inquiries. Following the second inquiry the planning inspector recommended that the appeal be upheld and the SRFI be given planning permission, but the Secretary of State disagreed and denied the appeal.

There was general agreement that the facility was needed and would function as a true rail freight interchange, but one of the key issues at both inquiries was whether a less harmful suitable alternative site could be developed as an SRFI.

The developer was required to undertake a major assessment of potential alternative sites. Any location near to a railway was examined over a huge area of south East England.

Again, a key influence was the SRA SRFI policy which suggested that 3-4 SRFIs would be required to serve London and the South East. Given the location of Radlett, the search area for alternative sites covered the North West quadrant of the region around London.

While the inspector agreed that there were no suitable alternative sites which would potentially have less impact, the Secretary of State (SofS) disagreed. He found that a potential SRFI at Colnbrook, near Heathrow, could have less impact.

Colnbrook was the location of a much earlier SRFI proposal known as LIFE, which was refused following an inquiry. The Radlett team rejected Colnbrook as an alternative site largely because it would be counter to local planning policy, particularly concerning the “strategic gap” between Slough and London. The inspector agreed.

However, the SofS disagreed because other local plans mention the potential for an SRFI at Colnbrook:

“The Secretary of State considers that if an application were to be made for a SRFI at Colnbrook of about the size indicated in evidence to the Radlett inquiry, then harm to the Green Belt might, subject to testing in an alternative sites assessment, be found to be significantly less than the harm caused by the Radlett proposal. ”

While there is no planning application for an SRFI at Colnbrook, a developer is working up plans for the site.

The Good News

The good news is that the Secretary of State has made it clear that support for the development of SRFIs is undiminished.

There are several major SRFIs currently being planned, some of which serve the areas of the refused application.

Significantly, SRFI developments of over 60 Hectares will be considered as “nationally important infrastructure projects” and dealt with through the new processes introduced by the last government (and currently being amended by the present government). This may provide more clarity on the needs issue in particular.

Our View

The two decisions cannot be seen as a shift of Government support away from SRFIs. Rather, they reflect the difficulty of allowing SRFIs to develop in Green Belt or other sensitive areas.

However, the decisions should be seen as an opportunity to reassess the way in which need and alternative sites are assessed.

The decision regarding Radlett is particularly unfortunate. In distribution terms, Colnbrook would serve a very different market to Radlett. Radlett would have been well placed to serve businesses and communities in Hertfordshire and North London. This is already an important area for the distribution industry, attracted by access to the A1(M) and M1 as well as the M25 and London. But the scheme proposers could not make this case as the SRA policy would suggest that there is not demand for both Colnbrook and Radlett.

The other reason for concern at the Radlett decision is the idea that a viable site can be turned down on the basis that an alternative sight might be developed which might have less impact. If the remaining alternative site fails to be developed, where does that leave the strategy for rail freight? The result may be ad hoc development of individual or small clusters of warehouses served 100% by road.

KIG is perhaps different. A visit to the site illustrates that, notwithstanding the M20, A20 and HS1, the area is predominantly rural and, to be subjective, pretty. The needs case is not helped by the absence of major distribution developments in the area and a feeling that the location is neither near a port nor well suited for access to London. There will be many in the distribution industry as well as local communities who feel that the right decision has been made in this case.

Time For A New Approach?

Our key concern is that major planning decisions continue to be influenced by a policy published by the SRA six years ago – the SRA SRFI Policy. This policy was based on theoretical research into distribution flows and patterns. At the time it was not clear exactly how the theoretical approach had been applied, and there was little consultation with the distribution industry. Arguably the very basis of the SRA research should now be questioned, given the rapid growth of rail use by retailers and potential moves towards port centric distribution.

The SRA policy provides an impression that there is an intrinsic and limited demand for rail freight terminals. An alternative view is that the demand for change in distribution  is lead by retailers and logistics companies who are constantly refining their operations. This is currently leading to demand for well located bigger distribution buildings. If these buildings are developed with good access to rail freight services, rail freight market share will grow. If not, then we will be locked in to road based distribution for another generation.

Looking at demand this way, the argument is turned on its head: if the distribution industry needs new buildings, such buildings should be located at or near rail terminals. Rather than limiting such developments to a certain number in each region, that number being determined by top down state planning processes, the alternative view would allow for more SRFIs to be developed provided that demand for distribution space could be demonstrated.

Demand forecasts for SRFIs tend to be based on models which assume that past trends continue, and are not necessarily well suited to forecasting future changes such as portcentric distribution. Any new approach should be rooted in the changing needs of the distribution sector.

Obviously there are more issues than this, but our clear view is that it is time to move on from the SRA’s SRFI strategy and to bring the planning process closer to emerging distribution strategies.

Ian Brooker – Peter Brett Associates

Chris Geldard – Geldard Consulting

Andrew Spence-Wolrich – The Spence-Wolrich Partnership

Intermodal Terminal Solutions


Trials and Tribulations (2)

March 20, 2010

This one was bad. Very bad . . .

After a couple of years of hard work a major European car manufacturer agreed to use international rail services and wanted to run some trial trains even before the opening of the Channel Tunnel. We could do this using the wonderful Nord Pas De Calais train ferry.

The trial was arranged by a company specialising in moving cars on trains. I was British Rails’ business development manager, so my interest was commercial, leaving our operational guys (including the very capable Andrew Fulluck) to run the trial. We all agreed not to attend the loading of the cars onto the trains because the rail operator and local railway would look after that. Big mistake.

On the day of the trial I travelled with a posse of colleagues down to Dover and onto the train ferry. We had a lovely crossing as usual, because the catering on the NPDC was aimed at truckers (the ferry carried both trucks and rail wagons) and so was extremely good.

At Dunkerque I went down into the hold to see the train loaded. There is something incredibly impressive about a car train – 750 metres long carrying up to 300 cars. It was even more impressive as it was being efficiently shunted onto the train deck of the ferry. While my colleagues sorted out things with the French, I admired the wagons and cars, feeling a bit like a loose end being the commercial guy amongst so many operators.

The sides of the wagons were interesting. Lots of labels and instructions in French. In particular, between each set of wagons on the upper deck there is a ramp which has two settings: “Gabarit GB” and “Gabarit Europe”. Even more interesting, all of the wagons were set at “Gabarit Europe”. Hmm, I’m only a commercial guy, but that looks odd to me. As the ferry doors closed I asked Andy if that looked right to him. immediate chaos, with lots of men in macs running around swearing.

“Gabarit Europe” meant that each ramp was slightly raised, to give more room on the lower deck and maximise the space within the European loading gauge. Being raised meant that some cars might be too high to fit under the tighter bridges and tunnels in the UK.

As the ship sailed for Dover we had a meeting. We knew that the customer and various other dignitaries would be waiting in Bristol to see their precious cars arrive. We could not afford to fail. The solution was easy: the ramps could be hand cranked down. It would be physically hard work as this should only be done when the wagons are empty – not with cars sitting on the ramps. But we had a good four hours to do it.  Guess what? There were no crank handles on the train – they had been removed for security.

Second solution was to unload them in the UK and sort it out in our sidings in Dover. As we docked at Dover on a cold dawn more men in macs strode down the gangway to help us in our hour of need. They went into a huddle and decided it could not be done. One of the tightest structures in the UK was between the ship and the sidings, would you believe. Nobody would take the risk of our train knocking down a bit of the Port of Dover.

So the cars were sent back to France. That night the train was taken off the ferry and the cars were all unloaded somewhere in Northern France, the wagons were set correctly, and the cars were reloaded.

A couple of days later Andy travelled to France to see the train reloaded onto the ferry. He stayed with the cars all the way to Bristol and I drove along the M4 stopping in a couple of places to photograph our lovely train as it passed.

The client was not unduly annoyed, and we got some good publicity out of the first train of cars to use the ferry. If only people had known the true story they might not have been so impressed!


New CBI Report on Road Congestion

March 15, 2010

I have just skimmed the new CBI report, “Tackling congestion, driving growth. A new approach to roads policy.”

The first thing I always do when a new transport report comes out is apply the Brooker Test: search for the word “freight” (also “goods”, “deliveries”, etc.).  Not too bad: freight is mentioned 7 times in 32 pages. But every mention is simply saying that freight is affected by congestion on roads. Apparently the CBI does not think that freight is either a cause of the problem or a part of the solution.

In fact the CBI’s solutions are very limited:

  • Flexible working to reduce peak hour traffic
  • Build more roads
  • Change the way roads are managed (mainly by selling them off – presumably to CBI members)

When a key transport report cites, extensively, the success of 18th century turnpike roads as a reason to change the way roads are managed and built, I have to despair.

Pretty disappointing as in the past the CBI have been quite good on transport.


Trials and Tribulations (1)

March 7, 2010

This was a bad one. I had been trying for over a year to get a contract to carry starch from Corby to Aberdeen – its an ingredient of paper. I knew the client well and got on with him well. Eventually I persuaded him to do a trial with us.

The starch was in “big bags” weighing a tonne each, so handling was easy and a VDA wagon would do the job on rail. I cannot remember which terminal we used to load the starch down south, but I arranged for it to be unloaded in Aberdeen by our own terminal and collected by a truck on contract to the final customer up there. We could achieve a 24 hour transit, but the client said we had two days. But the load was important and so at all costs it mustn’t take more than two days. I was to call him if there was any problem.

It is an important rule for me always to be present at both the loading and the unloading of a trial load. But Aberdeen was a long way, and this was only a load of starch. What could possibly go wrong?

The day of the trial arrived and I watched the big bags being fork lifted across to the VDA. all very smooth and off went the wagon. I rang the terminal in Aberdeen and warned them of the important trial coming their way. I even contacted the local loads inspector to ask him to take a look when it arrived. I kept a close eye on the transit using TOPS – our highly advanced computerised tracking system (this was 1984 – 15 years before sat nav!).

On the day that arrival was scheduled I saw on TOPS that the wagon was in Aberdeen and its status had changed from “loaded” to “empty”. Great! Just to be sure I rang the terminal and the foreman there confirmed having seen the wagon unloaded with no damage. Brilliant!

I am not sure if I tried to ring the client or if I was expecting him to call me, but basically we did not make contact.

Two weeks passed by, and I was plucking up courage to call him and ask for another load. Then I got a phone call. From Great Yarmouth. “Mate, we’ve got a VDA full of starch here, and we think it might be yours.” My blood ran cold? What? How? Surely it can’t be . . . .

It turns out that the nice people in Aberdeen had wrongly entered “empty” for my wagon. Since then it had been wandering around the network, full of starch, and waiting for another load. The man I rang and asked about the trial had seen a different wagon unloaded – of calcium carbonate, not starch.

I had to ring the client who promptly hit the roof. End of another bright prospect.

Message to anyone involved in rail freight: always watch your trial being loaded AND unloaded. Don’t trust anyone else!


What Am I?

February 27, 2010

I have a real problem answering questions such as what do you do, or what are you?

I have a degree in Environmental Sciences. From UEA. I always considered myself to be a scientist by nature, interest, and inheritance.

I joined British Rail in 1981 as a Management Trainee and continued to work for BR until 1994. Much of my work is still concerned with the railway. I am happy to consider myself to be a railwayman – even if that is a sexist term. Maybe a railway manager.

I was a marketing trainee. BR gave me a lot of training in marketing, including external courses. I got the Diploma of the Institute of Marketing by doing evening classes. I spent all of my years with BR in marketing / business development. I was a salesman for three years, and received masses of sales training. I was freight marketing advisor to the State Railway of Thailand for two years. I still do a lot of marketing, and with my boss win nearly all of my own work. I think I can say I’m a marketeer.

I spent all of my railway career in rail freight. We were always taught to consider ourselves to be logisticians – freight people first and foremost.  I joined the Institute of Logistics in about 1985 and have been a member ever since. Much of my work now is concerned with logistics in its widest since, from waste collection, through construction logistics and retail supply chains to national freight policy. I am certainly a logistician.

Since I became a consultant I have worked closely with economists, demand forecasters, transport modellers, and transport planners on a variety of projects that involve moving people rather than goods. Nearly always these are rail or tram projects, and my role is to understand the way the business works – how money flows through the railway, what makes things viable or not. This involves understanding transport policy and planning policy as well as transport economics and railway operations. Now I don’t really know what that makes me. Probably a transport economist or a transport planner.

And, of course, for 17 years I have been a consultant. An advisor. This is really two jobs: finding and winning work; and providing advice that clients are happy to pay for. Three if you count managing a team and making money. So I am certainly a consultant.

When people ask, I normally say I’m a transport consultant. That generally shuts them up and they move politely away . . . .


I Was A Speedlink Sales Executive!

February 24, 2010

From 1985 to 1988 I did one of the most unusual and interesting jobs in the railway industry. I was a Speedlink Sales Executive.

About a dozen of us covered the country, working from home but supported from regional offices. We were provided with a company car (would you believe my first was a yellow Vauxhall Chevette), and were given a considerable degree of freedom. Essentially we were sales men and women – reps on the road. My patch stretched from the Thames to Northamptonshire, across to Bedfordshire and Oxfordshire.

The support we were given was excellent. British Rail was very keen to make a success of Speedlink, and we were given external sales training and were properly managed by sales managers who set and monitored targets.

I think what was unique about our job was that we didn’t really have a product to sell. Every customer needed a bespoke product. The only thing in common was that we were offering freight transport using rail as the main mode.

For example, my patch had virtually no manufacturers or distribution centres with rail connections. To get goods from A to B I had to include collection by road, transfer to a rail wagon somewhere, the rail haul using mainly Speedlink’s wagonload network,  and then delivery by road at the other end. None of this was “off the shelf”. There was no brochure, no price list.

VGA vans in 'Railfreight' era  liveries

Our approach was this:

  1. Find a customer. BR employed some market research techniques, but our main approach was excellent local knowledge, searches of directories, and a lot of soul destroying cold calling by telephone.
  2. Persuade the customer to see you. Not easy. They were normally busy and very happy with the service they got from road hauliers.
  3. Meet the customer and find out about his or her business. What did they make, what did they move, from and to where? In what quantities? How is it being moved currently?
  4. Decide on the spot whether rail could potentially play a role in their supply chain. This really meant having a thorough understanding of both the road haulage market and the capabilities of rail. Price was obviously key, and only rarely would customers tell us what they were paying. So we had to estimate the road price and decide whether rail would be likely to compete.
  5. Sell the concept of rail to the customer – presenting the range of services available and the benefits of changing mode.
  6. If rail could play a role and the customer was interested, we would go away and pull together a package of services including finding a road haulier for collection, getting a quote from them, similarly for a rail terminal, similarly at the other end. We would decide on the best wagon to use, and find a suitable Speedlink service from our timetables. Hopefully there would be enough money left to get some revenue for the rail operation plus, ideally, a discount for the customer over his existing prices.
  7. Go back to the customer with a proposal / offer. Negotiate!
  8. Generally we would offer a trial run, often for free. For the trial the sales exec. would be on site to see the wagon loaded, and would travel to the other end over night to see that unloading went smoothly too.

The packages we offered were a unique combination, often involving five or six different companies (collection haulier, loading terminal, wagon provider, unloading terminal, delivery haulier). For that reason, while many of our colleagues in British Rail could spend their entire career and not deal with any company outside the organisation, we were adept at dealing not only with our private sector customers but also our private sector partners in the terminals, haulage, and wagon leasing industries. The partnerships formed were very open: any company could front the operation. So a haulier or a terminal operator could be the prime mover, and simply come to us for a rail haulage price. As sales execs our job was as much to provide support for terminals and wagons operators as it was to sell direct. At the same time we needed a good feel for rail operations and services, materials handling techniques, and logistics in its wider sense so that we could identify and home in on any opportunities to add value.

I will definitely come back to my time as a Speedlink Sales Executive in later blogs – stores about the terminals on my patch, and why most of my trial runs went disastrously wrong!


Speedlink Nostalgia

February 16, 2010

I was researching a future blog post about Speedlink when I came across this wonderful promotional video that Speedlink commissioned back in 1984. Enjoy!


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