What is freight? A Working Group Discussion Paper outlining our understanding

The Working Group received the following discussion document which we found useful and hope may inform members of the public. Please feel free to make comment or further information by emailing clerk@greatshelfordparishcouncil.gov.uk with a message headed FREIGHT COMMENTS. Thankyou.

Rail Freight

In former times sending freight by rail meant loading wagons which could be coupled up, uncoupled and shunted in marshalling yards, and attached to several trains before reaching their destination. The Beeching report found that in 1961 the average time a wagon spent in transit between being loaded and unloaded was 11.9 working days. Nowadays trains are more likely to travel as a fixed formation between their origin and destination.

We can distinguish three broad types of freight: dedicated, Network Rail’s own movements, and container (or intermodal).


By this we mean a regular movement of a train carrying one type of cargo. Examples are fuel, biomass for power stations, china clay, steel strip, quarry materials, vehicles, and building rubble or other waste. In the past coal would have featured massively – Beeching noted 145 million tonnes of coal per year moved by rail – but that traffic is almost extinct. Generally the timetable is constructed to allow regular movements of these trains between the same points, it being understood that the train may not occupy its “path” every day. Local examples are an aggregates train from a Leicestershire quarry to Harlow, which comes through Shelford at around 0505 or 0835, and the train bringing landfill from the London area to the former quarry at Barrington: the track from Foxton to Barrington was relaid a couple of years ago to accommodate this. However, we see relatively few of this kind of train, as we are not home to, or on a route between, much in the way of quarrying, mining, or heavy industry.

NR’s own movements

We get quite a few of these as Network Rail (NR) has a large depot at Whitemoor, near March, where they store ballast, sleepers and rails. Trains go from Whitemoor to wherever track renewal or repair work is taking place in our part of the UK. This is normally a night or weekend activity, so Friday night often sees trains trundling out from Whitemoor, to return at some point before the start of services on Monday. There are also some regular movements, for example a train from Kent to Whitemoor which comes through Shepreth Branch Junction off the King’s Cross line at around 1425 on Mondays to Fridays, and more specialised trains such as inspection trains which use ultrasound to detect cracked rails, and the leaf-clearing train in the autumn. We needn’t worry too much about these NR trains, except to note that fully-loaded ballast trains are probably the heaviest to pass through our lines.

Container, or intermodal

This is where containers arrive by ship, are off-loaded, then loaded and transported by rail, usually to a point where they are again offloaded and complete their journey by road. Ports refer to this traffic as Lo-lo (lift on, lift off). Recent years have seen massive growth in both container ports and in the inland terminals where the containers are transferred to road vehicles. The UK’s largest lo-lo ports by containers handled are, in order, Felixstowe, Southampton and London, the last being very much a growth area since the opening of the London Gateway port in 2013. To make economic sense, the inland terminals need to be sufficiently far from the ports to make a double transfer (ship to rail then rail to road) attractive. For shorter distances it’s cheaper to load the road vehicle directly at the port. Thus the terminals served from the three ports mentioned tend to lie from the Midlands northwards: examples are Daventry, Trafford Park, Doncaster, Leeds, Mossend (Lanarkshire) and the recently-opened East Midlands Gateway.

So in general freight from Felixstowe, Southampton and London will want to access the East Coast Main Line (ECML), for Leeds and Doncaster, or the Midland Main Line (MML) for the East Midlands), or the West Coast main line (WCML), for the West Midlands, Manchester and onwards towards Scotland. This is why there has been and still is concentration on the Felixstowe to Nuneaton corridor (F2N, in the jargon), as this route (Felixstowe – Stowmarket – Ely – Peterborough – Leicester – Nuneaton) enables trains from Felixstowe to access the ECML at Peterborough, the MML at Leicester, and the WCML at Nuneaton. This route is constrained by single-track sections on the Felixstowe branch itself and between Soham and Ely, and by the junction layout at Ely: for years there have been plans to remove these constraints and to electrify the whole F2N route, but so far the only visible results have been some double-tracking on the Felixstowe branch and the opening of the “bacon factory” chord to avoid reversal at Ipswich.

So it is significant that the only freight service, as opposed to freight capability, mentioned in the recent EWR documentation is for the stretch between Oxford and Bletchley: this makes perfect sense at it allows trains from Southampton to reach the WCML at Bletchley. We would not anticipate large volumes of freight on “our” section of EWR, not because of objections to it, but more simply because it doesn’t go the right way for the main freight movements: no connection is planned with the ECML, and those with the MML at Bedford and the WCML at Bletchley both point the wrong way, i.e. towards London rather than towards the Midlands. However, it would be possible to install north-facing chords at those locations, with some property acquisition and demolition, and EWR is clearly a possible route for the trains which currently run from Felixstowe to Bristol or Cardiff.

Freight traction

Less than 10% of the UK’s rail freight uses electric traction. There are two underlying reasons:

  1. Only 46.5% of the UK’s rail mileage is electrified, and electrification is concentrated on the main passenger lines and commuter routes;
  2. The “final mile” issue. Most freight trains begin and end their journeys in sidings and terminals which are not electrified, and sometimes for good reason: you can’t load and offload containers if the train is sitting under overhead power lines, for example. So operators prefer to avoid the expense of attaching or substituting a second locomotive for these “final mile” movements, leading to situations where although a freight train may cover most of its journey “under the wires”, it can’t take advantage of them.

This picture is evolving. Not counting some ancient diesel locomotives which can also operate on the Southern Region’s third-rail electrification, the UK now has 10 bi-mode locomotives which can be powered by the overhead wires or by their own diesel engine. There is a gross disparity in power between the two modes (4MW electric, 0.7MW diesel), but the diesel engine is adequate for shunting and for slow movements along freight-only branch lines.

Currently 30 tri-mode locomotives are on order and due to enter service from 2023. As the name suggests, these can operate in three modes:

  1. From the overhead electric wires
  2. Using the diesel engine, boosted where necessary by the batteries
  3. On battery power alone. This is to facilitate final-mile movements with zero emissions, for example where a terminal is in a built-up area.

The batteries are charged by regenerative braking and, if necessary, from an onboard transformer. These locomotives will have a better balance of power between modes, enabling them to operate at speed on non-electrified lines, and will switch modes during journeys to take advantage of the overhead power on electrified lines.

We will avoid here any debate about possible future power sources such as fuel cells.

Five final points:

  1. Of the three ports mentioned, the big growth area is London Gateway, from where there is easy access to Stratford and its connection to “our” Liverpool Street line, which trains can use to go via Bishops Stortford and Cambridge to join the F2N route at Ely. There is already a timetable slot for a Leeds to London Gateway train which, when it runs, passes through Shelford at around 0345.
  2. More jargon: railway lines all have the same track gauge, but have different “loading gauges” to denote the size of trains they can accommodate. Our understanding is
  • W8 gauge means the line can accommodate the standard 2.6-metre high shipping containers
  • W10 gauge can take 2.9-metre high “hi-cube” containers
  • W12 gauge matches W10 for height and is slightly wider to accommodate refrigerated containers.
  • W12 is the standard for new lines: even if they are not expected to carry freight, this builds in future capacity and allows them to be used as diversionary routes.
  1. The capacity for rail freight through the Channel Tunnel is chronically, and sadly, under-used. There is a history of technical compatibility problems, arguments about track access charges, perhaps a lack of political will, and more recently concerns linked to security and stowaways. A lot of goods moved by lorries through the tunnel could be on trains if these issues were resolved.
  2. The relevance of (3) above to us is that some Channel Tunnel freight trains use HS1 and its crossing under the Thames to reach a terminal at Barking. It would be easy to continue from there on the route via Stratford as above.

    So it’s possible that more freight will reach us off the Liverpool Street line, either from London Gateway or from the Channel Tunnel via Barking. At present this line is only W8 gauge, whereas F2N is a mixture of W10 and W12. However, NR’s Freight Network Study (April 2017) stated:

    “The key W10 aspirations include: West Anglia Main Line via Cambridge to Ely and Cheshunt to provide diversionary capacity for the traffic on the Felixstowe to the West Midlands and the North route and flows from London Gateway and Tilbury, and for the southern section of the East Coast Main Line.”
  3. The above text is not authoritative but is a summary of what members of the transport and travel infrastructure working group understand.