While Dr Beeching is rarely remembered as a promoter of rail freight, one of the recommendations in his infamous 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways was the setting up of a national network of liner trains, designed to replace the then archaic wagonload system.
The Doctor envisaged a network of up to 55 depots spread across the country, stretching from Plymouth and Brighton to Glasgow and Aberdeen. The average length of the rail haul was expected to be 150 miles, but some trains would cover as little as 70 miles. Annual carryings were projected to reach 57 million tons by 1984.
Although the idea of carrying containers by rail wasn’t new - small containers were being carried on Conflat wagons as long ago as the 1930s - the new liner trains would be the first to consist of permanently coupled wagon sets, with fixed bar couplings within each set, and they would be fitted with air instead of vacuum brakes.
Each wagon would have a deck length of 40ft, later amended to 60ft. The containers would be designed to international standards - 8ft wide and up to 8ft high, with standard lengths ranging from 10ft to 27ft (later adjusted to 30ft).
Shildon Works outshopped a prototype set of liner wagons in January 1964, and Ashford followed this up with the first production order of 100 wagons later the same year. The Freightliner brand name was soon adopted, and the first revenue-earning Freightliner trains ran between York Way (also known as Maiden Lane) in north London and Glasgow Gushetfaulds on November 15 1965.
The launch wasn’t without its problems: the National Union of Railwaymen had objected to the use of private road hauliers at the rail depots, and refused to let guards travel in the rear cab of the locomotive. The first objection was overcome just in time for the launch, but the second issue took longer to resolve - for a time Freightliner trains ran with a guards van at the rear.
The Freightliner network grew quickly, and by mid-1968 liner trains were serving 17 purpose-built depots, located in major population centres across the country. British Rail also ran Freightliner trains to and from non-Freightliner terminals - these included services between Camden Goods and Heysham Port, the ‘Tartan Arrow’ train between Kentish Town and Glasgow Bridgeton, and a short-lived service between Park Royal, Plymouth and Par. From 1968 until 1970 BR even ran a Freightliner train between Stratford and Paris, with the wagons crossing the Channel on the Dover-Dunkerque ferry.
Under the 1968 Transport Act, Freightliner was established as a separate company from BR, operating as part of the National Freight Corporation. Freightliner took ownership of BR’s International Standards Organisation (ISO) containers, but leased the wagons and terminals from BR, which also continued to provide diesel and electric traction.
The network of container trains continued to grow, with 28 terminals and 56 routes in operation by the end of 1969. New regional depots included those at Nottingham, Swansea, Trafford Park and Birmingham Landor Street - the last two supplemented the existing facilities at Longsight and Dudley respectively.
The Beeching vision for Freightliner had focused on domestic distribution, but in the early 1970s the potential for maritime traffic began to be realised.
Already the Irish market had been served via Heysham and Holyhead, since 1967/68 Freightliner had reached the East Coast ports of Harwich and Felixstowe (albeit without a dedicated terminal in the latter case), and the depot at Southampton Millbrook was handling more and more deep-sea traffic. But a new generation of terminals placed the emphasis very clearly on the sea - Tilbury opened in 1970, and both Felixstowe South and Southampton Maritime opened in 1972.
Freightliner’s inland terminals became increasingly geared to maritime traffic. A new terminal at Barking Ripple Lane was opened in 1972 for specific flows, including two daily services to and from Southampton for shipping lines OCL and ACT. A mini-terminal was established at Swindon to receive trainloads of Anchor butter from Tilbury. And the opening of Coatbridge Freightliner terminal in 1968 was largely intended for the deep-sea market, with train services contracted by OCL. Overall, the proportion of deep-sea containers on Freightliner trains rose from 13% in 1970 to 42% in 1980.
Freightliner also worked hard to develop its Irish traffic via Holyhead, which had been temporarily diverted to a makeshift railhead at Caernarfon between 1970 and 1972 because of the Menai Bridge fire.
The Irish business included two types of ‘land bridge’ traffic: deep-sea containers routed via Birmingham, and European traffic to and from Harwich. Freightliner operated its own terminals in both Belfast and Dublin, and for a time the Irish rail operator Córas Iompair Éireann provided a connecting rail service from the quayside in Dublin.
Notable domestic successes for Freightliner in the 1970s included aluminium from Rogerstone in South Wales (loaded at Cardiff Pengam), and substantial Post Office business on various routes. On the debit side, Freightliner closed its Sheffield terminal because of dwindling traffic volumes - largely the result of the declining stainless steel industry, coupled with improvements to the motorway network in south Yorkshire.