Fifteen years ago GB Railfreight started operating trains. The first train was launched at Willesden depot on March 27 2001, when 66701 was named Railtrack Logistics Centre to mark the partnership between Railtrack and GBRf.
While Railtrack has long since vanished, GBRf has gone from strength to strength. It is now the third largest UK freight company, has a turnover of more than £100 million, and employs almost 700 staff.
From its humble beginnings in 1999 (when the company was set up) to the juggernaut it is today, the GBRf ethos has always been about its staff and innovative ways of working. It caught the imagination with its ‘can do’ attitude - an attitude that encouraged its staff to go above and beyond their duty to get the job done and ensure customer satisfaction.
Starting off as a provider of infrastructure trains for Railtrack, GBRf grew quickly. It entered the intermodal market… and petrochemicals and coal followed. Biomass, rail services and aggregates now also all feature in its portfolio.
The company also provides traction and crews for the Caledonian Sleeper franchise, while GBRf drivers are currently the only ones in the UK who are passed to drive Hitachi Rail Europe’s Intercity Express Programme (IEP) trains on the main line. It has also recently started developing its passenger operations, having acquired a passenger licence some years ago.
GBRf is owned by Eurotunnel, having been bought from FirstGroup. This deal has enabled the company to expand considerably, including the single largest acquisition of locomotives by one company since EWS bought 250 Class 66s in 1996.
It was this determination and ambition that attracted Head of Strategic Development Duncan Clark. Having previously worked for DB Schenker, Clark then moved to Network Rail before arriving at GBRf in November last year. It was a career move that he had been eyeing up for a while.
“I made a decision in 2007-2008 this was the business to work for. I worked for another operator, and what I wanted to do I couldn’t do in the business I was in. And trying to turn that around is a difficult task.”
Settled into his role, Clark’s job is to ensure that GBRf can continue to grow. The traditional rail freight core market of coal is dropping. GBRf made a splash here in 2007 when it entered the market, reaching 10% of the market within 12 months. But what happens now? Coal is declining, and all coal-fired power stations will close by 2025.
“The growth markets we’ve picked up are intermodal, for example,” says Clark. “We are one of two international operators. There’s only us and DB Cargo. We have run trains through the Channel Tunnel as part of Europorte. We have ambitions to run European trains of our own, but European transportation is very much like a domestic intermodal train.
“Where I distinguish between the two is deep sea intermodal comes from a port, which is part of a journey on to a regional distribution centre, whereas domestic intermodal is from regional distribution centre to regional distribution centre. Daventry to Grangemouth is a classic example. You’re essentially doing the trunking business that would have happened with double-deck trucks.”
Is this the market, going forward?
“The biggest port in the country is Felixstowe, so that was the right place to go. Felixstowe is now already at 31 trains , soon to be 32.”
Clark believes that Freightliner will actually win that path, but GBRf has a business case in place for another path from the Suffolk port for later in the year. If successful, GBRf would operate eight trains each way per day into the port. However, that success also brings a challenge.
“You are moving 33 trains from a single branch line, and you’re still having to run a regular passenger service, which means there are difficulties in the times of delay and perturbation,” explains Clark.
Weather is an important factor. Clark points out that between 3% and 6% of trains are cancelled either because of wind, or due to other factors that limit use of the branch.
“And that makes it very difficult to put a solid business case together, because ultimately you have to build in the day that you can’t run the train.”
There have been regular calls for routes across which GBRf’s intermodal trains operate to be electrified. Infrastructure upgrades are reckoned to be vital for rail freight, and yet what look like fairly routine projects can often be put to one side by Network Rail on cost grounds. Doubling the Felixstowe branch cannot be achieved because of a viaduct, so there is talk of dynamic loops. Sir Peter Hendy’s review for NR (published in November last year) suggests that this will happen in Control Period 6 (April 1 2019-March 31 2024), but no firm date has been agreed. Surely this needs addressing?