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


Shirts: Red and Yellow and Pink. My Take On The Thai Crisis

May 24, 2010

This is my personal take on recent events in Thailand.

What is happening in Thailand is completely unprecedented. Yes, there have been 18 coups since the war, but every coup has been the result of either struggles within the military or struggles between the military and elements of the Thai elite. Yes, there have been mass demonstrations and massacres before, notably in 1976 and 1992, but these were led by largely middle class groups such as students, mainly based in Bangkok.

The Red Shirts

In contrast the Red Shirt movement is a true mass movement with support across the country, and with relatively weak links to any faction within the military. Within the red shirts there are, inevitably, many factions including trade unions, anti-poverty activists, and supporters of the deposed prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

I am convinced that the vast majority of Red Shirts are peaceful people. I spent some time wandering around their main protest sites in April. People were uniformly friendly, the atmosphere was fun and relaxed. Speakers all emphasised the need for peace and restraint.

Party atmosphere among the Red Shirts in April

Thaksin Shinawatra

Thaksin was a billionaire before he was elected as prime minister. He is the only civilian prime minister ever to complete a term, and the only elected prime minister ever to be re-elected. When in power he passed some simple reforms which made a huge difference to poor people across Thailand, including many members of my extended family. These included small pensions for the elderly, free or cheap health care, and improved education. He is the first politician ever to deliver on promises to look after the rural poor.

The problem is, certainly in my view, he is not a very nice man. He dominated the media through ownership and government control (echoes of Berlusconi), he ordered the extra judicial executions of thousands of alleged drug dealers, he dealt with the Islamic troubles in the South in an insensitive way, and he passed a law which allowed his main business to be sold overseas with no tax penalty.

I wouldn’t vote for him, but that is a choice for the Thai electorate and nobody else.

The Yellow Shirts

The reds are opposed by the government and most of the military. The government is supported by another mass movement who took to wearing yellow shirts. Generally these people are a coalition of monarchists and members of the traditional ruling elite, with support from the middle classes. The yellow shirt represents support for the king of Thailand (pink is another royal colour). The yellow shirts, you may remember, took over Bangkok airport a couple of years ago to protest against the elected government. Some of them used violence in that protest but, again, most were peaceful. They effectively succeeded in bringing down the government aided by a military coup. The present government is the non-elected result.

The yellow shirts have openly said that they do not feel that democracy is suitable for Thailand in its current state. The justify this by pointing to the corruption of previous elected governments, and to the lack of education of the majority of people in the rural parts of Thailand.

The Role of The King

It is impossible to overstate the love and respect that Thais hold for their king. I have never met a Thai person who does not feel like that. In the past the king has been marginally involved in various political crises. In 1992 he intervened to bring the two sides of an escalating dispute together. (I will not use this blog to criticise the king of Thailand, not lease in deference to the strong Lese Majeste laws in Thailand!)

However, at the moment the king is ill. Presumably very ill as he lives in a hospital. This has limited his ability to intervene, if he wanted to. To complicate things further, the crown prince, potentially his heir, is deeply unpopular and is perceived by many to have none of the king’s qualities of wisdom and care.

Some people involved in the dispute have taken advantage of this situation. It has been alleged that Thaksin would like to replace the king and that the red shirts want to harm the king. There is no evidence whatsoever for either of these allegations. All red shirts I know still support the monarchy and the king.

Before the recent troubles the lese majeste laws were used by government supporters as an instrument of repression: if you criticise the government you are criticising the king.

The Impact on Thai Society

Thai people pride themselves on their generosity and kindness. Thai people go to great lengths to avoid disagreements, and in particular to avoid open displays of anger. Thai society is essentially paternalistic – the rich are expected to care for the poor, and the poor are expected to respect the rich. This has worked well over centuries, not only making Thailand prosperous, but also making it one of the most pleasant and safest countries in the world.

Freedom and democratic standards are higher in Thailand than in most comparable countries. For example, the press is generally free, and  women have a very high level of equality. Demonstrations are not uncommon. Often these take the form of an individual or group going to parliament to plead their case – an ancient tradition. Some demonstrations have turned violent in the past, but over a very short period of time. After such outbursts there have been long periods of recriminations, with some of the leading perpetrators being exiled or prosecuted even if they were on the government side.

What is happening now is very different. People in Thailand are completely polarised. People are openly angry, and many talk openly of wanting violent retribution for their opposing side. The pro government people feel that the reds are either terrorists or are pawns of Thaksin. Their is masses of propaganda with lurid stories of reds wanting to kill the king, stockpiling heavy weapons, planning terrorist attacks, etc.  This has had the impact of making people more angry and scared. It also means that the deaths of dozens of unarmed reds is acceptable to many Thai people.

There is no evidence to back up any of these rumours against the reds, but it is certainly true that a small number of reds are armed and prepared to fight – these are the Black Shirts. They have been disowned by many of the red leaders.

A friend of mine is an example of a red supporter. Mali is in her forties and has had a tough life, coming from a poor farming family. In recent years she has run a successful bar and would have made a lot of money if she didn’t gamble quite so much! I have known her for 22 years and never heard her talk about politics. She has joined the reds three times and has a very good understanding of the issues.  She says that all the reds she met were peaceful people and she felt completely at home among them, not least as many are from her region, Isaan.  In particular, she felt that drugs were controlled under Thaksin, and she views the present government as being corrupt and losing control of drugs.

In contrast Jit, my ex and Mali’s best friend, tends to support the yellows because she is strongly monarchist and believes that the reds are being disrespectful to the king. Her partner spends his days soaking in the blood curdling propaganda in some of the newspapers against the reds.

What Will Happen Next?

I have no idea! I don’t think anyone does. Thailand has a fantastic ability to compromise and avoid dangerous disputes. The entire period since the war has been a cycle of democracy, coup, democracy, coup. That might suggest that out of this dispute will come some faltering steps back to democracy.

But some things about this dispute are unique: the role of the ailing king; the fact that Thaksin, through his limited reforms, opened a Pandora’s box of expectations among the poor; and the really deep levels of hatred and distrust between the two groups.

Thailand remains one of the safest, most friendly, and most exciting places to visit in the world. All Thais are conscious of this and no Thais want to change it. Personally I cannot imagine civil war there, and my gut feeling is that compromise will win. But it is impossible for anyone to be sure.


Thailand as we know and love it

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!

Public Transport – Not Always Easy!

October 1, 2009

First a quick apology as I haven’t blogged since my holiday.

In common with most of my friends and family, I pride myself on using public transport whenever possible. But I sometimes wish it could be easier.

My journey: The Trafford Centre to Manchester Piccadilly. I did my research. I knew that Metrolink is closed in the city centre and so doesn’t serve Piccadilly station directly. I knew that there was a frequent bus 250 direct from the Trafford Centre to Manchester Piccadilly.

I found the bus station at the Trafford Centre. IT has 15 nicely designed stands. It has a roof but is otherwise open to the elements. It does NOT have a simple list of destinations, the routes that serve them, and the stand where you catch those buses. So all you can do is walk down each stand and read the timetables. I found the 250 stand and the Metrolink shuttle stand. That was how I found that the 250 doesn’t serve Piccadilly Station – it goes to Piccadilly Gardens. Silly me? Hard to decide whether to use the 250 and make my own way to the station, or the shuttle service then tram then replacement bus to the station.

This decision was not made easier by the complete lack of real time information at the bus station. The 250 arrived very late, and at the same timer as the ML1 shuttle. I opted for the shuttle.

Next annoyance: the shuttle whisks you out of the Trafford Centre then several minutes later it serves another stop somewhere else around the centre. Then several minutes after that it serves a third stop. This might be convenient but it effectively doubles the journey time.

Next annoyance: get to Stretford to change to the tram. Would you believe there is no real time information on the tram station? I hope this is being rectified during the current renewals and expansion.

Next annoyance: the replacement bus is a few minutes walk from the tram stop at St. Peters Square. Not a particular hassle, but it was raining. The bus is supposed to be every 12 minutes. I waited 20.

Then I arrived at Piccadilly having just missed the London train. That was when I remembered the good news: London trains now run 3 times an hour, so I effectively got straight on the next train.

I know I am sounding like a grumpy old man, and maybe I am spoilt because I work in London where the bus information is superb. But even in my home town of Crawley most stops have real time information – I can even see how my bus is running using the internet before I leave home.

GMPTE has a reputation of operating a world class public transport system. But information is certainly lacking, and that detracts from the whole experience.

Future of Rail

August 19, 2009

I’m off to Mull for a week, so here’s something to think about.

The railway is approaching a financial crisis. Revenues will be down for a year or two, franchises will be supported by the government in most cases. Investment is up. Massively. Electrification and HS2 are being planned, while Crossrail and Thameslink are (kind of) under way.

What should the railway be doing from 2014 onwards? Continue to invest to meet  demand and improve quality? Or retrench to ensure that value for money is delivered from the schemes already underway?

Its not an easy question because the railway is, in my opinion, bloated and out of control on costs.

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