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.”
Speaking of paths, Amos says there is pressure to give them up. Sometimes trains will not run because the demand for product isn’t always there. That could then have a detrimental effect on business, because it raises the question of paths availability. The freight company says they are valuable, but so do the passenger operators.
If a path isn’t used for 90 days, it must be given up. But what if there is a surge in the building industry’s requirements? What if there is slack in what the industry requires? Both can affect trains.
“Anything I don’t use, there is pressure,” says Amos. “If the volume drops, there is a risk the path could go. How do you cope and allocate as the market fluctuates?”
He asks that rhetorically, as this is a debate the industry needs to have (and quickly, in GBRf’s opinion). Amos highlights that AI has won a deal from its Tinsley facility to supply product to work being carried out on the M1 motorway, which means more trains must serve the Sheffield site. Such fluctuations ignite the path/capacity debate.
Says Amos: “We need to be careful as an industry and work together. The debate, it seems, is surrounding the thought process. Continual passenger trains is a good thing, we think. But is it? What do they achieve? They are fantastically convenient, but is that what we actually want?”
He adds: “Who has priority? That is one for Network Rail. This is where we need the co-ordinated voice.”
He suggests that pathing across the capital for freight traffic should also be considered: “There is perhaps a wider issue for whoever succeeds Boris Johnson as London Mayor, as I thought they wanted to facilitate freight as well as passenger.”
Amos believes that the freight industry has matured, with companies now working together. “We have to, as there are things that will affect us more and more. People like the RFG are very important, and they do a great job. It is about using and assisting them. The RFG has been a strong co-ordinated voice. The battle for services will need that influence.”
Back to the train, and the unloading is going well. The single-road shed is home to two men - a GBRf shunter and an AI controller. A hammer is sometimes used to ensure product is dislodged from inside the wagon. Today it is needed once.
Mark Keeble, the driver for today’s train, is based at Toton. The plan (eventually) is that Bardon Hill-based drivers will take over the train, but that is an ongoing process.
Today’s train should leave at 0947, and is due at Bardon Hill at 1347. Hauled by 66702 Blue Lightning, the train must wait at Neasden while the ‘66’ runs round the train, having drawn it out of the loading facility. It will then climb a short incline to the freight-only route via Acton Canal Wharf, where the ‘66’ again runs round its train, before heading north to the Midland Main Line. Keeble explains that usually with this train there is a 20-minute wait at Brent and a further five minutes at Kettering.
We depart Neasden terminal on time, but are delayed when running round the train. The blue ‘66’ waits on its train for what seems like an eternity. London Underground and Chiltern Railways trains, including a new Class 68, whizz by as we wait.
Finally, at 1046, we draw forward. It turns out that a DB Schenker train running from Cricklewood is on the freight line, and there is a conflict, one that Amos vows to investigate. Keeble suggests that already, we probably won’t be able to make the time back.
Up on the freight-only section, it is hard to believe that we are in London. The route is still signalled by semaphores, and there are manned signal boxes. Our two-track branch runs to Acton, but we still have to wait as a DB ‘66’ passes with an Acton-St Pancras stone train. Once that passes, 66702 is uncoupled from its train and runs to Canal Wharf (crossing the West Coast Main Line) to run around its train. Looking down to his left, Amos sees a GBRf stone train at Willesden for Calvert.
We set off for Brent, where the line joins the MML opposite Cricklewood depot. There is an incline to the MML. By now the train is more than 30 minutes late. As we wait for a new path, the MML capacity problem becomes clear - even in off-peak there are East Midlands Trains expresses and Govia Thameslink Railway suburban trains racing north and south along the line.
Our GBRf stone train is routed via the Slow Lines, which means it must cross the MML. Here, the line speed is 20mph running to a junction, but there is a frustrating speed restriction, dropping it to 10mph. This will not help us get the time back.
Amos highlights more issues that affect freight on this line, both now and in the future: “The MML needs electric freight capacity, and capacity north of Bedford, where it is three tracks. The signal headways need improving. Quarrying will be there for the next 30 to 40 years, so it is not going away. You need the fourth line - it needs parallel investment.”
Keeble says of the route: “Bedford can be a bottleneck. Trains terminate there. If you come Down to Bedford and cannot get through before 0730, then you cannot get through until after 0900. EMT and Thameslink use the fast lines.”
Once on the slow line the maximum speed is 90mph, but we can run at a maximum of 60mph. The problem, Keeble explains, is that there is a GTR stopping train in front - this means that even if we get a succession of green lights, it is pointless getting up to 60mph because all too soon there will be cautionary signalling meaning that the train will need to slow down.
Again, this highlights the question of priority. “If we had gone before the stopper, we would have been away. Network Rail does this all the time,” says Amos.
At St Albans, a siding between the Up and Down slow lines houses a pair of Class 319s. They formed the stopping train that we have been following. Keeble suggests that the next ‘catch-up point’ will be Luton. If not there, then certainly Bedford.
As we arrive at Luton, a Freightliner Heavy Haul Class 66/6 stands on a stone train in Crescent Road terminal. In front of it are two pairs of Class 319s waiting to run south. Meanwhile, we have a double yellow facing us. “That means there is something at Leagrave,” sighs Keeble.
At Bedford, we are held at a signal before being routed onto the Down Fast. At this point 66702’s train is 31 minutes late. “This is rare to get the Fast,” Keeble acknowledges.
We head north along the Down Fast, passing a DB-hauled cement train at Sharnbrook Junction that has been held on the Down Slow. Just north of here we cross to the slow line. This bi-directional section of railway feels like a branch line - it is single-track and set away from the MML. There is provision for the forthcoming MML electrification - bridges have been raised, while the track looks freshly laid and with enough space for a fourth track.
We travel along a mix of three and four-track from Wellingborough (where GBRf operates a sizeable infrastructure yard) to Kettering Junction (where the Corby branch heads away from the MML), where we transfer to the Down Fast again. From here, it is a two-track railway until Leicester.
This section has long headways between signals, and yet is as busy as the railway north of Bedford, except for the EMT services that run to Corby. Amos suggests it is one and a half miles between signals, which he says is typically more than on the southern end of the MML.
Just after the MML meets the line from Nuneaton, there is a junction for the line to Bardon Hill. This is single-track, but is well kept. And it is busy, with trains to Bardon Hill and to Stud Farm (trains for the latter leave this route at Bagworth Junction). GBRf continues to Bardon Junction, where the quarry is located.
The line continues towards Burton-on-Trent, and is double-tracked yet rarely used. GBRf operates weekly Tube train deliveries along the line. The firm also takes trains to Coalville Mantle Lane to run round, or stable.
Today, 66702 deposits its train and is stabled. The ‘66’ is the first of three to arrive, and will later run to Peterborough with the others.
The yard is small, with only a handful of relatively short sidings. AI has its own Rolls-Royce shunter that it uses to push the wagons up a steep 1-in-40 incline that is also on a tight bend, and as we leave 66702, this is noisily moving its train back into the quarry.
Amos is happy that the train made up some time, and that there is no issue with the customer. He later emails to explain the delay: “When they had the contract last year, Freightliner used to propel from Neasden South Junction up the curve to Neasden Junction. To avoid this we do two run rounds.
“The signaller alleged that the schedule has not been altered to reflect this, but it has! The schedule shows that we should have run round at Neasden South Junction 0952 to 1012, which I think we did, then go up the curve to Neasden Junction and run round there 1017 to 1039. We then depart Neasden Junction and cross onto the correct line and head towards Cricklewood, where we are booked to wait for our path on the MML from 1047 to 1106. The 6M22 Cricklewood to Calvert is due to pass us immediately after we depart Neasden Junction.
“What actually happened is that the signaller held us at Neasden South Junction from about 1010 to 1048 until 6M22 went over Neasden Junction, giving us a 33-minute delay. The DB train that waited for us to arrive at Neasden Junction was 7M62 Acton to St Pancras, and was a couple of minutes early.
“We would have made up most of the delay going on to the MML, but as you saw we struggled to get a path and then they put us out right behind a St Albans stopper which pretty much took us back to our original lateness!”
That, in a nutshell, illustrates the problem the railway faces. Capacity is not, subject to perception, a passenger railway-only problem. It seems that attitudes, and culture, may have to change.
- This feature was published in RAIL 775 on May 27 2015