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State owner subsidiary
Industry Rail freight
Founded 1977
Defunct 1991
Services wagonload freight
Parent (after 1984) Railfreight Distribution (RfD)
British Rail

Speedlink was a wagonload freight service operated by British Rail from 1977 to 1991 using air-braked wagons


Background, 1970s[edit]

In the late 1960s British Rail (BR) was loss making and government supported; government and British Rail management sought solutions and remedies to the problem of the declining wagonload business; in 1968 a 'Freight Plan' committed the company to continuing wagonload traffic; the possibility of reducing the scope of the freight network was investigated, and computer modelling and computer route planning introduced to seek increased efficiency. Additionally BR began operating a relatively high speed freight service (Bristol to Glasgow) using air braked wagons in 1972;[note 1] a forerunner of the Speedlink service.[2] Further air braked freight services were introduced in the early 1970s, and an investment in 650 wagons sought.[2]

During the 1970s BR substantially reduced its rolling stock and infrastructure for wagonload traffic, total wagon numbers were reduced to 137,000 in 1979 from over 400,000 in 1968; from 1973 to 79 a third of the system's marshalling yards were closed, and freight depots were reduced by nearly one fifth; in the same period total air braked wagons nearly doubled in number.[3]

Speedlink, 1977-1991[edit]

By 1977, the 1972 air-braked train service pilot had increased to 29 trains per day. The Speedlink service was formally launched in September 1977.[1][note 2]

The Speedlink system was more restrictive than a traditional wagonload service utilising marshalling yards, but used fixed timetables between a more limited number of destinations - the resulting service was faster, with higher reliability on delivery times.[5] In 1984 Speedlink was running 150 trunk services per day, with a peak 8 million tonnes carried per year, with two dozen main and secondary distribution sites with around 800 potential sidings as destinations - it was claimed (1983) that the service was profitable.[6][note 3]

In 1988 the Speedlink service became part of a new BR operating sector Railfreight Distribution (RfD) together with Freightliners Ltd., BR's intermodal container carrying rail freight subsidiary.[6] The merger was hoped to bring in further business through business synergies between the two subsidiaries,[7] minor differences in the braking systems used by the two companies prevented train operating economies being realised.[6]

The future of the company was under question throughout the 1980s; one reason for retaining the service was a potential increase in traffic after the opening of the Channel Tunnel,[note 4] Attempts to make Speedlink break even by 1992/3 were stymied by the early 1990s recession, in 1989/90 the company lost £28 million, with revenue of £42 million; a review of operations had shown "trainload" freight to be profitable only on journeys of over 500 miles, with substantial loadings (10 wagons per day).[9] The Conservative governments first elected in 1979, in power throughout the period (see Thatcher ministry and First Major ministry) sought improved financial performance of BR, in contrast to the extensive public subsidy provided by earlier Labour governments.[10]

The Speedlink service finally came to an end in 1991, as part of attempts to convert British Rail into a wholly commercially viable business prior to privatisation.[11] It had received state grants of £69 million during its existence,[12] and at closure was carrying approximately 3 million tonnes of freight per year, at a loss of over £30 million pa on revenue of £45 million.[13] After closure approximately 70% of the freight carried was initially retained by BR, representing 125 trains per day;[14] any freight viable as trainload services operated by the division were transferred to British Rail's regional trainload sectors Mainline Freight, Loadhaul, and Transrail Freight.[15]

Successors, 1991-[edit]

After the end of the Speedlink service in 1991 a number of services were initiated in attempts to serve the potential wagonload rail freight market:

Railfreight Distribution (RfD) established a wagonload service for cross-channel tunnel freight, named Connectrail; the operations of this business were incorporated into EWS after it acquired RfD in 1997, and merged into its 'Enterprise' service.[6][16]

A road-rail intermodal service Charterail was established in 1990 to serve potential customers post Speedlink using piggyback wagons from Tiphook. The company went into liquidation in 1992, claiming high locomotive haulage rates made the enterprise unsustainable. [17]

In the BR privatisation transitional period (1994-1996), Transrail Freight started a long distance service named 'Enterprise', the service continued to be operated after the company became part of English Welsh & Scottish as 'EWS Enterprise'.


  1. ^ The airbraked wagons could operate at up to 75mph, compared to 45mph for unbraked wagons.[1]
  2. ^ A much more advanced proposal (1976) also named 'Speedlink' utilising "Freight multiple units", 20 major depots with automated sorting systems and 200 minor depots with gravity unloading system using roller conveyors was not funded.[4]
  3. ^ This is believed to have been an accounting trick whereby Speedlink claimed an income based on charging other BR operating companies the full rate for transporting goods regardless of the actual income from the services.[6]
  4. ^ SNCF operated a large amount of wagonload traffic; additionally BR's contract to use the tunnel was a fixed annual charge, there was an understanding between SNCF and BR on cross channel freight, estimate to be over 5 million tonnes pa in 1995 after a 1993 opening.[8]


  1. ^ a b "British Rail's waqon trains roll again", New Scientist, 75 (1070), 22 September 1977, p. 731, ISSN 0262-4079 
  2. ^ a b T. R. Gourvish (2011), British Railways 1948-73, pp.501-504
  3. ^ T.R. Gourvish (2002), British rail, 1974-97, p.79; Table 3.9, p.80
  4. ^ Joseph Hanlon (9 December 1976), "British Rail says 'Cheaper by road'", New Scientist, 72 (1030), pp. 596–7, ISSN 0262-4079 
  5. ^ Alan C. McKinnon (1989), Physical distribution systems, Routlegde, p. 164 
  6. ^ a b c d e A.S. Fowkes; C.A. Nash (2004), "Rail Privatisation in Britain - lessons for the rail freight industry", European Conference of Ministers of Transport, round table 125, White Rose university consortium, B2. Wagonload traffic, pp.4-5 
  7. ^ Kenneth Irvine (1988), "Track to the Future" (PDF), www.adamsmith.org, Adam Smith Institute, sections 1.2, 2.2 
  8. ^ T.R. Gourvish (2002), British rail, 1974-97, p.284
  9. ^ T.R. Gourvish (2002), British rail, 1974-97, pp.284-5
  10. ^ Michael Freeman; Derek H. Aldcroft (1985), The atlas of British railway history, Croom Helm / Routledge, pp. 24–5 
  11. ^ Andrew Pendleton; Jonathan Winterton, eds. (1993), Public enterprise in transition: industrial relations in state and privatized corporations, Routledge, pp. 51, 223 
  12. ^ "Speedlink", hansard.millbanksystems.com, UK Parliament, 184, c183W, 23 January 1991 
  13. ^ "Speedlink", hansard.millbanksystems.com, UK Parliament, 192, c278W, 6 June 1991 
  14. ^ "Speedlink", hansard.millbanksystems.com, UK Parliament, 194, c289W, 8 July 1991 
  15. ^ The Sale of Railfreight Distribution (PDF), National Audit Office, 26 March 1999, Fig.4, p.13 
  16. ^ Sources:
  17. ^ Sources:


Further reading[edit]

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