There is much more to capacity challenges than merely trying to get more passenger trains onto our already crowded railways.
Debate has inevitably centred on the need to fit more trains on the national network, and on moving the general public from A to B. To an extent, that is understandable - after all, these are potential voters and people who can and will make their voices heard if the service is not to the standard required.
But what of freight? After all, it was the transportation of goods that necessitated the invention of the railway in the first place. Cargo cannot vote, and cannot complain. When there are delays, freight trains are put in loops, with passenger trains given priority.
Is this fair? Passengers would argue yes, but who is there to crusade for rail freight? There are campaign groups, and the Rail Freight Group (RFG) is praised for the work it does, but there is still much to do.
GB Railfreight is keen to highlight the problem, with capacity an issue that affects a major new deal it has with Aggregates Industries. The contract to move aggregates around the UK focuses very much on London, and on trying to get paths. And there are very strict performance targets to which GBRf must adhere. Performance has been good, but as events on May 1 showed, it doesn’t need much to affect the service.
RAIL travelled on the 0947 Neasden-Bardon Hill. Phil Amos, GBRf Senior Accounts Manager - Aggregates, Steel and Gypsum, is in charge of the contract, and he meets me at the North London facility, tucked away near the Metropolitan Line and Chiltern Main Line.
The small shed within the terminal houses the unloading facility. Today 20 wagons are being unloaded - they had carried stone from Bardon Hill, on the freight-only Burton-Leicester line. Today’s 20 wagons can each transport 65 tonnes of product.
Trains leave Neasden daily for various destinations, including Croft and Bardon (Leicestershire). They also run to the Isle of Grain (Kent). When AI trains serve the latter, they carry sand and fine aggregate. Generally the product is for the construction market - mainly houses and roads. There is a mixture of small and large stone.
Amos explains that AI owns three rakes of wagons, which are mainly able to carry 75 tonnes, and which serve Tinsley (near Sheffield). That particular train runs from Bardon three or four times per week.
He says that with all the different destinations, GBRf must supply 20 to 25 trains per week across the country. There are three different wagons that must be used - hoppers owned by AI, hoppers leased by GBRf, and box wagons leased by GBRf.
The GBRf hoppers tend to work from Grain to Neasden, Colnbrook or Brentford, while the box wagons are principally used between Bardon and Crawley, Avonmouth-Crawley, Grain-Acton and Acton-Harlow. Amos says that trains formed of hoppers (like today’s) will be rakes of 20 vehicles, while the boxes will be 18 wagons.
There is also a flow between Shrewsbury and Tinsley, and between Tinsley and Theale. This operates as a ‘circle’, with the train starting at Shrewsbury, running to Sheffield, and then ‘Up’ to Theale before returning ‘Down’ to Shrewsbury. Amos says that rotating the wagons like that is the best method.
The contract also uses, on average, four or five Class 66s per week. Usually they run five days per week, but occasionally one or two also run at the weekend.
GBRf began running trains for AI on January 6, having officially taken over the contract on the first day of 2015. Operationally, says Amos, it has gone exceptionally.
“It is the best I have known so far since I started here .” Amos has been at the operator for 12 years, apart from a small period away working for Network Rail.
“We went through the details and there were no real surprises,” he says of the deal. “There are always a few issues when starting a contract, such as timings and the way people work, but you iron them out quickly, as we did here.”
However, one major problem remains: “Capacity. It restricts us.”
Amos explains that a Bardon to Crawley train would, ideally, run via the Midland Main Line to reach London, before then crossing the capital. Instead, it must run via the East Coast Main Line through Peterborough and then Up the ECML. It has also been decreed that it must run off-peak.
“There are two problems. One is that if the train is out of its path, there is a risk - we could be cancelled, or loop for two to two and a half hours. The other thing is the additional requirements of the customer. If they need more trains, it is very hard to find a path for the extra train.”
Amos understands that with so many passenger trains, it is hard to find a path. But he highlights other constraints that freight must face: “We cannot go at peak-time - for instance what if we hit Bedford at 1830? There is no other way around unfortunately.”
He says that GBRf is not yet at the level whereby work could be restricted because of a lack of capacity within the business - instead, it’s the railway itself that has the capacity conundrum. “If we win a contract, then mostly the paths are there and not restricted. But if the client wants additional trains, and we need additional paths, then it can be difficult.”