Biomass…from port to power station

The train plan for the new biomass flow required detailed prepatory work, with particular attention paid to the sectional running times and close investigation of headways along the route from Tuebrook Sidings to Drax. 

“Capacity is really constrained.,” reveals Smith. “Todmorden is the main route, and then it is across the top of Miles Platting Bank. That is a consideration we have to look at - do we need banking? I think the area has been rationalised, too, which means we have to wind our way through Manchester. It is not easy.”

Electrification is also an issue. Surely if the wires are put up, then the better acceleration of the electric multiple units will help improve access for freight? 

“They’ll try and run more EMUs and they will go faster. We are better with the slower services,” replies Smith. On bidding for access, he says it is a case of freight versus passenger trains: “It is about pinch points, like around Stockport.” 

However, Smith says that people are listening. He talks of devolution: “There are some consultations with Rail North. The difficulty is that you talk with people and they are interested, but the problem with most rail freight is that it crosses geographic boundaries. 

“People need to understand the industries and the infrastructure it serves. I think they get it. The key is our right of access to the network. Capacity must be found for that. What comes next is to lobby for investment in infrastructure.”

He says the ports are driving this need for investment, as highlighted by this new deal. “The main ports are Liverpool, Tyne, Tees, Immingham and Hull, and it is about the connections into these. These ports are hugely important.

“Liverpool was coal and is now biomass. Ports need good access. Liverpool needs it.” 

The trains form part of a much larger supply chain that serves the power station. Much of the biomass imported into the UK arrives at east coast ports such as Port of Tyne, Immingham and Hull, but using Liverpool gives the energy supplier dual-sourcing in the event of any interruption of supplies to the east coast ports or to their railway infrastructure and access.

In its application to the Office of Rail and Road, GBRf highlighted the issue of access following the derailment of a coal train at Brocklesby, and how that seriously disrupted traffic to and from Immingham for more than a week. 

The application stated: “This is one of the UK’s largest and busiest ports, and resulted in a serious reduction in the tonnage of coal, biomass and other goods handled here, with a switch in ports being necessary. As a result of this, GB Railfreight lost almost 50% of its services and the first four to five days saw no trains out of the port at all.”

Drax’s need for biomass is huge. The energy supplier requires millions of tonnes per year, and there has to be as much certainty as possible on delivery - particularly on the rail side - to ensure that the company can meet the UK’s power requirements.

In its application, GBRf explains the difference between coal and biomass as: “Unlike dealing with coal for generation, the transportation of biomass is far more a ‘just-in-time’ operation, with the product needing to be kept under cover and, at worst, only being stored for a limited time before it is burned. Therefore, there needs to be tightly defined paths to give the ability for GBRf to deliver the required tonnage, seven days a week, and maintain a robust fuel supply into Drax Power Station.”

Smith explains: “Drax needs to know where the product is stored. Liverpool is also better protected. The economics help, too.” 

He says that all three ports that Drax uses (Tyne, Immingham and Liverpool) will be running at around 70% capacity. This means that in the event of a problem whereby trains and ships need to serve a different port, there will be sufficient space to accommodate them. Thus the need for access and different routes was paramount.

Drax also saves time by using Liverpool, rather than the east coast ports. Docking ships from North America on Merseyside, rather than (say) the North East, saves about two days. This, combined with competitive port rates, drives commercial decisions to use the likes of Liverpool. 

Going forward, GBRf warned in its application that removing this new biomass flow would mean there is no margin at all during the peak winter period, when the UK requires more energy, and thus a continued national supply would be at risk.

And it’s not just Drax that is spending money on this project. The Port of Liverpool is spending £350 million on the ‘Liverpool 2’ Project that will enable larger vessels to dock at the port. This sum also includes the enhancement of its own rail infrastructure, enabling it to better manage a predicted large step-change in intermodal and biomass traffic from this year. It is also planned that steel, scrap and car trains will form an integral part of the Port’s future business plan.

GBRf has also spent big on this scheme. It has invested in Tuebrook Sidings and bought brand new Class 66s that will be delivered early next year. New traincrew have also been recruited. 

This represents a huge investment, and an example of GBRf’s ‘can do’ attitude. What it needs now is the industry and stakeholders to help support the growth of rail freight. 

  • This feature was published in RAIL 788 on November 25 2015


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  • FrankH - 02/02/2016 11:35

    Another route could be to Warrington BQ as now then WCML to Farington Jnct then the East Lancs line via copy pit into yorkshire rejoining the original route at Wakefield. Maybe longer mileage wise but there's not a lot of traffic uses the route.

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    • FrankH - 03/02/2016 12:03

      There's a Doncaster -Preston - Doncaster light engine move via the copy pit route 2nd and 3rd Feb, It could be GBRF route training as Colas allready run this way with bitumin for preston docks.

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  • FrankH - 28/02/2016 23:17

    The first time I've seen it in the schedule, Doncaster Decoy yard via calder valley to Farington jnct, WCML to parkside Jnct then St Helens to Liverpool Bulk terminal. 3hrs 20 mins.

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