McMahon says the freight operators have secured a lot of equipment for themselves.
“We are not actively looking to go in and do somebody else’s job for them. That’s not something we have ever done. We thought at the time it felt like it might be the thing we could help in some shape of form. In terms of bi-mode operation, and where that is necessary or works best, it is still early days.”
McMahon says he wants to see how progress with the electrification team is going, so is his role more about information gathering? Does NR need to know what customers want so it can then plan for the future in terms of the infrastructure?
“That’s spot on. One of our central roles in the industry is to develop those long-term plans for the infrastructure, and what demand is going to hit the railway in ten, 25, 30 years’ time - so very long-term plans.”
“Frankly, we are the only people that can do that, and we have been charged with leading that. The Strategic Rail Authority used to do a lot of that, and it is now down to NR, through the Route Utilisation Strategy programme and the long-term planning process.
“In order to understand what the traffic could be, we need to talk to the people who ultimately choose to put the traffic on rail. Drax Power Station, for example, sees a lot of trains in and out each day, and is absolutely dependent on the railways for its business.
“They might choose to use haulier A, B or C, or a mixture of all three. They might not be doing that tomorrow, they might not be doing it next year, because they will have their own contractual relationships and there may be certain things they don’t want to share with a freight operator, but they might be willing to share with NR as an independent middle-man.
McMahon says NR has built up good relationships with such customers, including members of his team who have been involved in rail freight for many years.
“We have put in a lot of effort collectively to strengthen those good, trusting relationships. People are happy to talk to us and share their views on rail, which aren’t always positive, and share their views on freight operators, which equally aren’t always positive. They share their business plans, and that is essential for us to get a richer picture of what is going on. We use that to inform our planning processes.”
McMahon acknowledges that certain individuals and certain freight operators didn’t like NR doing that, arguing that it is outside NR’s remit. But McMahon has always believed that “it’s absolutely the right thing to do”, adding: “Without that we are wholly reliant on what a freight operator tells us, and they might not be party to all the information. We know they are not, as there are things the end user tells us in confidence that they can’t tell freight operators, for one reason or another!”
Drax Power Station, which has invested hundreds of millions of pounds converting some of its units to burn biomass, imports raw material from the US. It has a huge supply chain to bring goods into UK, and is a good example of the way freight is evolving and changing from traditional flows such as coal.
But how else is freight changing?
Coal can sit in large stockpiles, but biomass is combustible if it gets damp, so has to be looked after carefully.
“The Port of Liverpool has invested significant amount of money to work on biomass as part of the Drax supply chain,” says McMahon. “Freight operations end users are saying on one level that NR needs to support biomass traffic.”
RAIL recalls another less apparent freight opportunity that could become more permanent at Euston station.
Night freight trials have taken place at the station - in partnership with NR, distribution firm TNT and Colas Rail - making the most of some otherwise redundant Motorail wagons to transport non-perishable goods into central London after the passenger trains have stopped running.
Battery-powered vans and hybrid lorries arrive via the parcels deck and Euston’s useful ramps, and then have goods transferred to them before scurrying away to deliver to the West End’s shops.
Is that a genuine opportunity, or is there a risk (with Euston being rebuilt in time for HS2) that it is nothing more than an interesting experiment? Is there an opportunity for light freight once more?
McMahon is open to the idea of a dedicated high-speed freight flow, perhaps in and out of Euston, King’s Cross or St Pancras.
“Wagon load didn’t work in the modern era, but if you have the growth of Amazon and internet shopping, everyone has everything delivered,” he says.
The prospect of high volume parcels, high value equipment, and perishable goods is “quite interesting”, according to McMahon.
“Standard engineering works. We will support it and are happy to talk to people who want to do more in that arena. People out there are talking about what sort of equipment you need.
“Someone has to try to make it work on a bit more of a scale, with more regularity, but supermarkets are interested. Emissions in central London are not going to make it easier for road traffic.”
There are paths on the network at night, but shops in central London could be replenished in the afternoon as well.
“It’s good to see TNT and others in the sector think quite carefully about it. We welcome those sort of initiatives, and do what we can to support them.”
At RAIL’s previous meeting with McMahon, we talked about whether NR was winning the argument over road freight - with the prospect of longer HGVs seemingly on the backburner. While road haulage has considerable advantages over rail freight in terms of flexibility, it doesn’t always win the economic argument.
“Talk to end users. They like rail. The economics of rail works.
“The service quality has improved immeasurably. Growing capacity on the network remains a challenge, not least because if you look at the freight forecast following a consultation and industry engagement last October, you see freight growing from a 2011 level to 2043 (which is the timescale we run it out to) by 140%.”