Rail freight in Great Britain

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Three Class 37 locomotives hauling a coal train on the Rhymney Line in 1997.
Million tonnes of rail freight moved in the UK from 1983 to 2017 (annual rolling average). There was a large decrease in coal carried in 1984-5 due to the miners' strike.[1]

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.[2] In 2015-16 Britain's railways moved 17.8 billion net tonne kilometres, a 20% fall compared to 2014-15.[3] Coal accounted for 13.1% of goods transport in Britain, down considerably from previous years.[3] There is no goods transport by railway in Northern Ireland.[4]


Pre-19th century[edit]

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.[5]

A goods train hauled by a LNWR Class C locomotive, passing through Crewe in 1907.

19th century[edit]

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.[5] 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[6] 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.[7]

Early 20th century[edit]

The First World War was dubbed the "Railway War" at the time.[8] 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.[6] 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.

A pre-World War II LMS Fowler Class 4F steam locomotive hauling a mixed freight train at Carnforth in 1964.

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.

Nationalisation era[edit]

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.[9][10]

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.[11] Even the most rural stations transported goods in the form of postal services; 3,368 stations generated only 4% of Royal Mail's receipts.[12]

The Beeching cuts included a reduction in freight services, especially the marshalling yards, to concentrate on long distance bulk transport.[6] In contrast to passenger services, they greatly modernised the goods sector, replacing inefficient wagons with containerised regional hubs.[13] The industry today is very similar to Dr Beeching's vision half a century ago.

Tinsley Marshalling Yard in 1982, one of several large yards which never handled the large volumes of freight required to make them economical. The yard is now closed but a new cargo terminal opened nearby in 2011.

In the 1980s, British Rail was reorganised into "sectors" including four goods sectors:

The 1980s, however, also brought a huge down-turn in freight traffic, with the sector increasingly seen as irrelevant and without a future.[5]

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.

Privatisation era[edit]

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[6]):
  • Railfreight Distribution was also sold to EWS in 1997
  • Rail Express Systems was also sold to EWS in 1996
  • Freightliner was privatised as Freightliner

The opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994 allowed direct goods trains to run between the UK and the continent for the first time. Freight services are also offered by the Eurotunnel Truck Shuttles.

Subsequently, EWS' nuclear flask train operations were sold to the new company Direct Rail Services set up by British Nuclear Fuels Limited.

GB Railfreight was a new freight company established in 1998 by GB Railways.

Deutsche Bahn purchased EWS for £309 million[14] on 13 November 2007.[15] 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[16] throughout Europe. [17][18]

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.[9][19] 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.[20] 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.[21][22]

Current operations[edit]

Goods carried by rail are either intermodal (container) freight or trainload freight which includes coal, metals, oil, and construction materials.

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.[23]

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%.[24] 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%.[24] Coal makes up 36% of the total net tonne kilometre, though its share is declining.[25] Rail freight has slightly increased its market share since privatisation (by net tonne kilometres) from 7.0% in 1998 to 9.1% in 2011[26] and around 12% in 2016.[27] Recent growth is partly due to more international services including the Channel Tunnel and Port of Felixstowe, which is containerised.[28] Nevertheless, network bottlenecks and insufficient investment in catering for 9' 6" high shipping containers currently restrict growth.[29]

Intermodal freight[edit]

An example of intermodal freight: a Freightliner Class 90 at Stratford, hauling an intermodal train from Crewe to Felixstowe.

A "liner train", or "freightliner", is a UK term for a train carrying intermodal containers.[30] 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.[31]


The rail access to the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal (DIRFT), a major intermodal terminal.

Major intermodal freight terminals include:

Sea ports[edit]

Inland terminals[edit]

Trainload freight[edit]

An example of trainload goods: a Freightliner Class 66 hauling empty cement tanks.

Trainload freight movements include:


Oil and petroleum[edit]

  • 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.[36] 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[37]
  • Colas Rail Freight will provide haulage for bitumen from the Lindsey Oil Refinery to Total UK’s Preston production plant.[38]
  • DB Schenker Rail (UK) move petrochemicals from Grangemouth, Fawley, the Humber, Lindsey and Milford Haven refineries[39]

Construction materials[edit]

  • Lafarge uses rail freight in its various cement works[40]
  • 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[41]
  • 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[edit]

Tesco "Less CO2" intermodal containers at Rugby Yard.
  • Asda grocery goods movements between distribution centres in Daventry, Grangemouth and Aberdeen using Malcolm Group and Direct Rail Services since 2001[42]
  • 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[43]

Nuclear flask trains[edit]



Colas operates timber trains to Chirk from Carlisle, Ribblehead (Pennines), Baglan Bay in South Wales and Teigngrace in Devon.[45][46]


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.[47] 538 sets of Cartic 4 wagons were built between 1966 and 1972 and not finally scrapped until 2013.[48] 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)[49]

Wagons transporting Honda cars at Bristol Temple Meads.


"Binliner" routes include:

  • Northolt and Cricklewood to Calvert landfill site
  • Routes from Greater Manchester to Roxby Gullet landfill site (Freightliner)[50]
  • 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[51]


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