Clark raises some interesting questions. Does he think there’s been sufficient debate on this issue, especially as HS2 is essentially only a decade away?
“We’re still in the throes of that. Network Rail and HS2 have started the consultation on what we do with capacities. They’ve made assumptions that capacity will free up. What we don’t have, because of the nature of the track access contract and how the network code works, is the ability to pre-allocate that capacity in a strategic capacity sense for freight operators.
“My role puts me in a position whereby I get involved in all of the Network Rail consultations. That puts us in the middle of the right conversations. The DfT is building its strategic rail freight plan right now. We’re involved in six workstreams. We sit on the board and the panel as well. There are opportunities, but there are also concerns.”
Looking at other markets, the amount of aggregates carried may have dropped in recent Office of Rail and Road freight statistics, but is building London still a massive market potential for rail freight?
“Huge. If you want to look at the opportunities for rail freight, it changes around in aggregates because it’s around where the roads are being built.
“Sometimes it’s just economical to road haul to destinations. If you were doing an M4, for example, the Mendips are just road haulage. But if you’re moving the volume out of the quarries towards where the roads are going to be built and they are some distance away, ideally over the 100-mile threshold, then they’re obviously within target range.”
The large-scale road plans announced by the Government are actually likely to benefit rail, he says.
“If you look at the Highways Building Plan, the £10 billion to £13bn they’re going to spend over the next five to ten years, that gives you some indication of the amount of aggregate business opportunity.”
There are 160,000 homes planned for London. Add the construction of HS2 and the need to move 130 million tonnes of material, as well as Crossrail 2, and surely the business is looking rosy?
“We’re involved with the Transport for London people on London Euston, for example. So if Crossrail 2 goes ahead there’ll be a junction just under Euston. So not only will there be a high-speed railway, it will also need modernising for that. We’re going to have a huge underground complex built for Crossrail.”
With this brings yet more potential opportunity, Clark explains. “You’re in a position whereby one of the plans was to shut Euston Road for a significant period of time. There are opportunities there for rail freight that we’re exploring. We have to wrestle with how do we build London and keep the railway open, and keep people moving at the same time? It’s an unenviable task.”
Some issues that affect rail freight are more wide-ranging. For example, the migrant crisis that has consumed Calais in recent months has had a direct effect on rail freight through the Channel Tunnel. Trains could not run due to security concerns. The plan has been to keep trains running, but that has not always been possible. All being well, a new service will start this month, but concerns remain.
Clark explains: “The reality is the customers are reluctant. The customers are reticent about signing up to long-term deals when we see the media coverage about what’s going on over in Calais.
“There are fears about the number of people who are moving through Europe towards the borders. That gives folks concern that they wouldn’t have had before. It’s probably a second order issue as a result of the problems we had in summer last year.”
There was a similar problem in 2000-2003 with EWS - the international market was crippled as refugees sought entry into the UK by clinging to trains. Is there concern that this could be repeated?
“It all depends on whether or not the work that’s been done by the French is maintained. The French have put up 30km of fences now, in many cases four metres high with razor wire at the top, and three metres in other areas because of overhead catenary lines.
“On a regular basis there are upwards of 20 police on duty, with dogs as well. They’re also involved in other activities like visible policing, where they’ll move vehicles around with the lights on. And I’m sure if you were to look at the thermal imaging cameras from the helicopters, you would see in a tragic way migrants being herded around and away from the railway. The work the French are doing - it’s mind-blowing how well they’ve taken to dealing with this issue.”
And yet, putting that to one side, the Tunnel has remained a missed opportunity in terms of what traffic could go through there. Is that something that Clark is actively looking to try and change?
“Yes. There are flows of traffic that make sense for the Tunnel because it is an expensive undertaking to use HS1, which has a different charging mechanism that is much greater than that of Network Rail.
“Then you’ve got the Channel Tunnel costs and tolls and security issues. So it becomes an expensive part of the journey. To make that make sense, it means the distance you have to operate over so you can advertise that premium cost of overhaul mileage, the further away you can get from the Western ports the better. Italy is a good target, which has happened before. Poland’s a good target - even on to Turkey and other places like this.
“There is lots of volume regularly flowing from these countries to the UK. What we have to do is capture those and deal with the fact you’re changing jurisdictions, which means engine changes and sub-contractor arrangements with international rail operators.”
Clark says it always comes back to risk and reward arrangement, where the reward is whether for customers using rail versus road would make a better margin. Then there are also the social and economic benefits to consider, as well as the risk that the train doesn’t make the transit.
“One truck not making it through is easier to handle than 32 trucks not making it through,” says Clark.
What would be the biggest risks getting it across Europe? Would it be negotiating orders?
“Borders have rarely been a problem in my experience,” he says. “The problem has been navigating the relevant infrastructure managers.
“So we have problems depending on their engineering programmes. If you think about in the UK, if we were to dig up a piece of the railway - for example, the West Coast Main Line - we would have alternative routes available for diversions. Other infrastructure managers aren’t necessarily organised in quite as efficient a way. They don’t really understand what we call the joint network availability plans.”
Clark says that by all infrastructure managers buying into using the planning systems and making sure that the systems are up to date, this should become less of an issue.
“But it’s about making sure that there is always a route open,” he adds. “And the alternative routes sometimes put more time into the plan. So you only need to have 20 minutes, an hour, two hours’ additional into transit and then you might not make your connections.
“Because we will run trains even though they’re running late, and try to get them back to time. In Europe if you’re more than a couple of hours’ late they stop you and hold you to your next available path. And that next available path might be 24 hours away.”
What are the benefits to moving across Europe by rail, as opposed to on the back of a lorry?
Clark argues that there are multiple benefits: “A lot of them are economic in terms of its socio-economic benefits of having trucks and the impact they have on society. There’s the carbon and environmental benefits. But also, if you go across Europe of a weekend, there are limitations on when a truck can run.
“Time is a benefit that rail freight can bring. That time translates into inventory benefits. The quicker we can transit, the less stock they have to hold at either end of the pipe, essentially.
“Inventory benefits are always a target. But if you’re going to start removing warehouse stock in favour of running a train, the train better make it on time. It better make it to the right place.”
- This feature was published in RAIL 798, published April 13 2016.