The number of trains has gone down, but the tonnage per kilometre has gone up - that’s about a 75% increase since privatisation, in terms of the amount of pure tonnage carried. It equates to roughly 100 million tonnes per annum, and that figure is increasingly slightly.
Says McMahon: “It’s increased over the last few years - the underlying growth is there. Intermodal, particularly, has grown. But we are not out of the era of austerity.”
Looking ahead, McMahon questions what funds might be available for Control Period 6 (2019-2024), adding: “And we haven’t put a spade in the ground yet for HS2. We need to ensure there is investment for specific freight intervention.”
Aside from the £38 billion set aside for CP5, McMahon says there has been around £200m in each of CP4 and CP5 for specific freight projects. “We have had to marshal our funds.”
He wants to “park HS2 to one side until we know it is definitely going ahead”, although he recognises that when it happens, it will create capacity for intermodal trains.
RAIL asks whether the future challenge will be to create more capacity, with more Ipswich curves, and dealing with bottlenecks in the network. Is there a list of projects McMahon want to prioritise, in what is left over in CP5?
“If we can identify those pinch points, where you can go in with a focused scheme, then that is the way to do it, rather than doing a grand scheme. Doncaster North Chord is another one to add to the list. Now we are starting processes to identify where some of those might be. Different people have thoughts of where those schemes might be.”
But planning constraints are tricky, and have eaten up a huge amount for the Strategic Freight Network. Perhaps the network therefore requires some sort of bold re-opening project to actually cope with the vast amount of freight. With the formations for many closed lines remaining in situ, can arguments be made for re-opening branches and long stretches of track that are not currently being used?
“The economics of finding a billion pounds or more are not simple,” says McMahon.
He looks at what has been delivered so far at the ports of Southampton and Felixstowe, and with more work under way over the next 18 months, he is keen to identify proposals for CP6 and beyond.
“We are not going to limit that. If there are bold and ambitious schemes, let’s bring those into the discussion. We want to look at the case for them.”
But the cost of engineering is always going to be considerable. McMahon says freight investment tends to be done incrementally, through the Strategic Freight Network.
“The freight market study highlights potential growth at 140%, an unconstrained forecast for the next 25 to 30 years. What would we need to do to make that happen, if we want to take the trucks off the road?
“Inevitably that won’t come on the cheap. I don’t want to undermine the case for freight. On the other hand, if we want to see freight grow, what do we need to do to make that happen in an efficient way?”
He says a really well-researched study into needs is therefore required.
“It can range from specific interventions - from building a chord, or moving a signal to allow longer trains to run - to something a bit bolder.
“It plays into the capacity debate. Look at freight paths today. There are up to around 800 freight trains, but there are 2,000 paths in a working timetable. There is quite a lot of freight capacity unused.”
It is certainly an issue on a growing railway. RAIL recalls freight trains running through Kensington Olympia (on lines shared with London Overground and Southern) in rush hour - but there is obviously a need to run freight trains at that time. Surely there must be a conflict here?
“There is a curfew in London. Freight trains drop down in the peaks in London. Watford, Stratford or further afield, numbers drop in those hours. Transport for London needs to run more intensive services.”
But a good railway is one that needs to interact well with freight flows. McMahon can see freight on the North London Line from his office, with container trains running in and out of Felixstowe, yet he knows that the Felixstowe to Nuneaton scheme (when complete) will allow more freight to run cross-country. Is having that sort of mixed traffic unsustainable in the long term?
“Unsustainable is an emotive term. By sorting out Felixstowe to Nuneaton, my hunch is that would be hugely beneficial to the economy and rail sector. It will be a few years before we get there. We are putting a lot of focus on the F2N scheme to drive it forward and make that happen.
“But we have to segregate freight from passenger. Doncaster, on the East Coast Main Line, is a cracking example. There’s a time saving for freight trains going into power stations. It’s hugely beneficial.
“We need to make better use of the capacity we have.”
- This feature was published in RAIL 760 on 29 October 2014