Rail freight in Great Britain
The railway network in Great Britain has been used to transport goods of various types and in varying volumes since the early 19th century. Network Rail, who own and maintain the network, aim to increase the amount of goods carried by rail. In 2015-16 Britain's railways moved 17.8 billion net tonne kilometres, a 20% fall compared to 2014-15. Coal accounted for 13.1% of goods transport in Britain, down considerably from previous years. There is no goods transport by railway in Northern Ireland.
- 1 History
- 2 Current operations
- 3 Intermodal freight
- 4 Trainload freight
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Even in the 16th century, mining engineers used crude wooden rails to facilitate the movement of mine wagons steered by hand. In Nottingham, 1603, a tramway was constructed to transport coal from mines near Strelley to Wollaton. Horse-drawn lines were increasingly common by the 18th and early 19th centuries, chiefly to haul bulk materials from mines to canal wharves or areas of consumption.
The world's first steam locomotive engine was demonstrated by Richard Trevithick in 1804. Steam powered rail freight operated regularly on the Middleton Railway, near Leeds, long before any passenger services. Many of the early railways of Britain carried goods, including the Stockton and Darlington Railway and the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The LMR was originally intended to carry goods between the Port of Liverpool and east Lancashire, although it subsequently developed as mixed passenger-goods railway.
The network expanded rapidly as small private firms rushed to build new lines. Over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, these amalgamated or were bought by competitors until only a handful of larger companies remained (see Railway mania).
The Post Office began using letter-sorting carriages in 1838, and the railway quickly proved to be a much quicker and more efficient means of transport that the old mail coaches. It was estimated in 1832 that using the Liverpool and Manchester Railway to transport mail between the two cities reduced the expense to the government by two-thirds. It was also much faster to send newspapers across Great Britain.
Early 20th century
The First World War was dubbed the "Railway War" at the time. Indeed, thousands of tonnes of munitions and supplies were distributed from all over Great Britain to ports in the South East of England for shipping to France and the Front Line. Due to pre-war inefficiencies in the rail goods transport, a number of economisation programmes were needed to allow the railways to meet with the huge demand that was being put on their services. The Common User Agreement for wagon usage and regulation of coal services through the Coal Transport Act of 1917 are examples of such programmes, which enabled better utilisation of railway assests across the industry. The success of such schemes was entirely down to the collaboration of more than 100 railway companies, who abandoned the fierce competition of the pre-war years to work together in the national interest. In no sector was this more obvious than in rail goods transport.
During the Second World War, vast quantities of materials were moved around Britain by rail. During the early stages of the war, goods trains ran to rural stations in Norfolk to enable airfields to be constructed. In 1944, 500 special trains ran every day on the network and over a million wagons were controlled by the government's Inter-Company Freight Rolling Stock Control organisation.
Beer was a major rail-hauled commodity, but gradually switched to the improving road network. The complex network of brewery railways in Burton-Upon-Trent became disused by 1970. Likewise, milk was widely transported by rail until the late 1960s. The last Milk Tank Wagons ran in 1981.
Britain's railways were nationalised in 1947 including goods operations. Under the 1954 British Rail Modernisation Plan, massive investment was made in marshalling yards at a time when the use of small wagon load traffic with which they dealt was in steep decline. Railway freight services had been in steady decline since the 1930s, initially because of the loss of the manufacturing industry and then road haulage's cost advantage in combination with higher wages.
By 1959 it was realised that the Modernisation Plans were not working. The wagon load traffic lost £57 million on receipts of £105 million in 1961. Signal boxes would have to be manned 24 hours a day in order to accept a limited amount of traffic. Even the most rural stations transported goods in the form of postal services; 3,368 stations generated only 4% of Royal Mail's receipts.
The Beeching cuts included a reduction in freight services, especially the marshalling yards, to concentrate on long distance bulk transport. In contrast to passenger services, they greatly modernised the goods sector, replacing inefficient wagons with containerised regional hubs. The industry today is very similar to Dr Beeching's vision half a century ago.
In the 1980s, British Rail was reorganised into "sectors" including four goods sectors:
- Trainload Freight took trainload goods
- Railfreight Distribution took non-trainload goods
- Freightliner took intermodal traffic
- Rail Express Systems took parcel traffic
The 1980s, however, also brought a huge down-turn in freight traffic, with the sector increasingly seen as irrelevant and without a future.
In 1986, quarrying company Foster Yeoman prompted a turnaround in the reliability of rail freight by obtaining permission to run its own locomotives, and importing the first 4 EMD class 59s. This design was developed into the class 66 which became widely used by EWS and other operators over a decade later.
British Rail was privatised in the 1990s. Six freight operating companies (FOCs) were set up:
- Trainload goods was split into three geographical units (all were purchased by Wisconsin Central and amalgamated into EWS in 1996):
- Railfreight Distribution was also sold to EWS in 1997
- Rail Express Systems was also sold to EWS in 1996
- Freightliner was privatised as Freightliner
Deutsche Bahn purchased EWS for £309 million on 13 November 2007. On 1 January 2009, EWS was rebranded as DB Schenker along with Deutsche Bahn's Railion and DB Schenker divisions. In March 2016, DB Schenker was rebranded as DB Cargo throughout Europe. 
Since 1995, the amount of freight carried on the railways has increased sharply due to increased reliability and competition, as well as new international services. Major road haulage operations such as Eddie Stobart LTD and WH Malcolm move goods by rail, hauling supplies from Asda and Tesco. Morrisons also use rail freight, as do M&S and many more retailers.
A symbolic loss to the rail freight industry in Great Britain was the custom of the Royal Mail, which from 2004 discontinued use of its 49-train fleet, and switching to road haulage after a near 170-year-preference for trains. Mail trains had long been part of the tradition of the railways in Great Britain, famously celebrated in the film Night Mail, for which W. H. Auden wrote the poem of the same name. Although Royal Mail suspended the Mail train in January 2004, this decision was reversed in December of the same year, and Class 325s are now used on some routes including between London, Warrington and Scotland.
The Department for Transport's Transport Ten Year Plan calls for an 80% increase in rail freight measured from a 2000–1 base. By the year 2015 rail-borne intermodal traffic is scheduled to double, and by 2030 the whole of rail freight is expected to double at 50.4 billion tonne km.
There are four main freight rail operating companies in the UK: Direct Rail Services, Freightliner, GB Railfreight, and the largest, DB Schenker (formerly EWS). There are also three smaller independent operators, which are Colas Rail, Devon and Cornwall Railways, and Mendip Rail. The Rail Delivery Group set up by the DfT includes representatives of rail freight companies.
Statistics on freight are specified in terms of the weight of freight lifted, and the net tonne kilometre, being freight weight multiplied by distance carried. 116.6 million tonnes of freight was lifted in the 2013–4 period, against 138 million tonnes in 1986–7, a decrease of 16%. However, a record 22.7 billion net tonne kilometres (14 billion net ton miles) of freight movement were recorded in 2013-4, against 16.6 billion (10.1 billion) in 1986–7, an increase of 38%. Coal makes up 36% of the total net tonne kilometre, though its share is declining. Rail freight has slightly increased its market share since privatisation (by net tonne kilometres) from 7.0% in 1998 to 9.1% in 2011 and around 12% in 2016. Recent growth is partly due to more international services including the Channel Tunnel and Port of Felixstowe, which is containerised. Nevertheless, network bottlenecks and insufficient investment in catering for 9' 6" high shipping containers currently restrict growth.
A "liner train", or "freightliner", is a UK term for a train carrying intermodal containers. The name was coined by Richard Beeching in the 1960s, and later became the Freightliner sector of British Rail. This was sold off as a private enterprise, Freightliner, in 1995, as part of the privatisation of BR. "Freightliner" or "liner" may mean either intermodal services run solely by Freightliner, or intermodal services in general. Additionally, a "bin liner" or "binliner" is a slang term for a liner train carrying containers of waste for disposal.
Major intermodal freight terminals include:
- Birch Coppice near Tamworth, West Midlands
- Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal, West Midlands
- Dollands Moor, Kent - for freight via the Channel Tunnel
- Telford International Railfreight Park
- Trafford Park Euroterminal
- Wakefield Europort
- Wembley European Freight Operations Centre
- Barking Rail Freight Terminal 
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Trainload freight movements include:
- DB Schenker Rail (UK) run coal trains between mining sites in South Wales, Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire and Scotland and coal-fired power stations around Britain. These are run using merry-go-round trains.
- 40 coal trains per day run from Immingham to coal-fired power stations in the Aire Valley (Drax, Eggborough, Ferrybridge) and the Trent Valley (Cottam, Ratcliffe-on-Soar, Rugeley, West Burton). The south humber ports generate close to one fifth of total UK freight by tonnage via the South Humberside Main Line.
Oil and petroleum
- GBRf runs up to two 20 tank trains a week for Petrochem Carless Ltd, transporting gas condensate from North Walsham (Norwich) to a refinery in Harwich. The company also transports up to 3 trains per week of petroleum products from the North East to Inver Terminal at the Queen Alexandra Dock in Cardiff
- Colas Rail Freight will provide haulage for bitumen from the Lindsey Oil Refinery to Total UK’s Preston production plant.
- DB Schenker Rail (UK) move petrochemicals from Grangemouth, Fawley, the Humber, Lindsey and Milford Haven refineries
- Lafarge uses rail freight in its various cement works
- GB Railfreight hauls raw materials and finished goods including gypsum, aggregates, limestone, iron ore, sleepers, ballast and rails. Its customers for this include Lafarge Tarmac, British Gypsum, Yeoman, Aggregate Industries, Network Rail and TfL
- Mendip Rail operates aggregates trains for its parent companies Aggregate Industries (due to acquisition of Foster Yeoman) and Hanson (due to acquisition of ARC). It holds the record for the longest and heaviest British train.
Food and drink
- Asda grocery goods movements between distribution centres in Daventry, Grangemouth and Aberdeen using Malcolm Group and Direct Rail Services since 2001
- Tesco movements operated by Stobart Rail (Direct Rail Services) from Daventry to Mossend and Inverness, as well as the longest train journey in Europe by a single operator, a 1,100 mile journey from Valencia to Dagenham of fresh Spanish produce in a refrigerated train
- Colas Rail imported melons as part of the regular Norfolk Lines train from Italy to the Midlands
- Soft drinks manufacturer Britvic uses Malcolm Logistics for its rail freight from Daventry to Grangemouth and Mossend
Nuclear flask trains
- DRS operates all Nuclear_flask trains in Britain which, until the late 1990s, were previously operated by EWS (and British Rail before it). Destinations served include the UK nuclear power stations at Heysham, Valley (for Wylfa), Bridgwater (for Hinkley Point), Berkeley (for Oldbury), Hunterston, Torness, Seaton Carew, Dungeness and Sizewell.
- The company formerly operated trains to the railhead at Southminster for fuel from Bradwell nuclear power station, however this installation is now in the process of being decommissioned.
- There are also occasional trains from Ramsden Dock at Barrow-in-Furness to the processing plant at Sellafield, carrying nuclear waste from nuclear power stations in Japan and the Netherlands for treatment. DRS also have a contract to supply the Royal_Navy's Devonport Dockyard with fuel for Britain's nuclear submarine fleet. These trains only run as required. There is also a train from Hull to Sellafield which reprocesses Russian spent fuel.
- Low-level nuclear waste is carried by rail in containers from Sellafield to the Low Level Waste Repository at Drigg, several miles down the Cumbrian Coast.
- There are plans to start running trains between Sellafield and Georgemas Junction in 2012, returning spent fuel from Dounreay to Sellafield.
- Tata move steel products from Margam to Llanwern by rail, and from Scunthorpe to Ebange (France) via the Channel Tunnel. 10 trains run to/from the major Tata plant at Scunthorpe.
Road vehicles, particularly passenger cars, can be moved by rail using autoracks. Ford and Honda are two companies who use rail to transport road vehicles. Ford launched its Dagenham Dock to Halewood train using Cartic 4 wagons (up to 34 cars on each double deck wagon) on 13 July 1966. It was expected 200,000 Ford vehicles would be carried each year at a rate of 50 to 60 trains a week, plus 10 a week to the docks. 538 sets of Cartic 4 wagons were built between 1966 and 1972 and not finally scrapped until 2013. Jaguar Land Rover and BMW also use rail to transport vehicles. 90% of all finished vehicle rail movements within the UK are run by DB Schenker Rail (UK)
"Binliner" routes include:
- Northolt and Cricklewood to Calvert landfill site
- Routes from Greater Manchester to Roxby Gullet landfill site (Freightliner)
- Brentford to Appleford in Oxfordshire by DB Schenker
- Dagenham and Hillingdon to Calvert landfill for West Waste, also a DB Schenker service
- North London Waste Authority uses Freightliner Heavy Haul to operate a daily service from the transfer station at Hendon to Stewartby
- Bristol and Bath Councils have used rail since the 1980s and Freightliner now operate the service completing a daily circuit between the two transfer stations in Bristol and Bath to the landfill site at Calvert in Buckinghamshire
- DB Schenker carries Manchester’s household waste on daily services from four transfer stations at Northenden, Bredbury, Pendleton and Dean Lane to Roxby near Scunthorpe, a distance of roughly 85 miles
- Edinburgh has used rail since 1989 and the DB service is booked to run Mondays to Saturday from Powderhall waste transfer station to a landfill site at Dunbar a distance of 27 miles
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