Further investment in the deep-sea business included the opening in 1978 of the Northfleet Hope terminal at Tilbury, reached by a spur from Freightliner’s own Tilbury terminal.
In the same year, the Department of Transport (as it was then known) made a £412,000 Section 8 Grant towards the cost of a rail container terminal at Seaforth Dock, Liverpool. This project included two miles of new track and gave a welcome boost to rail freight in Liverpool at a time when conventional wagon traffic to and from the port had ceased completely.
The trend towards taller maritime containers presented a problem for Freightliner because of the restricted loading gauge on most parts of the BR network. A major investment scheme to allow 8ft 6in boxes to be carried on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) involved lowering the track in Stoke, Peascliffe and Penmanshiel tunnels. The work was successfully completed at Stoke and Peascliffe, but Penmanshiel Tunnel collapsed during the project and the railway had to be rebuilt around the tunnel on a new alignment. Ironically Freightliner would later withdraw its services on that stretch of the ECML.
As the 1970s drew to a close, another change of direction was heralded as the 1978 Transport Act brought control of Freightliner back to the British Railways Board. This change was welcomed by many, although it also meant that Freightliner was no longer eligible to apply for Section 8 Grant funding to upgrade its own facilities.
Meanwhile, the shift from domestic to deep-sea traffic continued. Felixstowe experienced particularly rapid growth, and in 1983 the port doubled its Freightliner capacity by opening a second rail terminal (Felixstowe North). Initially, the new facility was reached by an internal dock railway from the throat of Felixstowe South, but in 1987 British Rail opened a new 1¼-mile spur from Trimley station to Felixstowe North, leading to slicker operations. Alongside its deep-sea throughput, Felixstowe handled European containers in place of Harwich from late 1985 onwards.
Domestic Freightliner traffic stagnated in the 1980s, but there were some notable successes in niche markets. In 1984 Freightliner started moving large quantities of aluminium billet from Newport to Falkirk, routed via its Cardiff to Coatbridge service. In the same year it renewed its contract with Royal Mail for parcels between London, northeast England and Scotland.
However, the overall picture for inland terminals was mixed, with those that relied on domestic business suffering a decline. Even the recently connected port terminal at Seaforth had its service cut to a single daily train to and from nearby Garston. The problem with Seaforth was that many of its customers were located in northern England and the Midlands, too close to the port for rail transport to be viable.
It soon became clear that Freightliner’s future lay in enhancing its core routes, with longer and more frequent trains serving a smaller number of regional terminals. The cull of marginal depots began in 1986 with the closure of King’s Cross (which latterly handled only a nightly Freightliner service to and from Edinburgh) and Dudley (whose traffic could easily be subsumed by Birmingham Landor Street). In the same year the privately operated depots at Aintree and Greenock closed.
In April 1987 Freightliner jettisoned eight further depots: Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Hull, Longsight, Nottingham and Swansea. The closure of three Scottish terminals was perhaps surprising because of their potential for long-distance trains, but Freightliner preferred to use road connections to and from Coatbridge, which lay at the end of the electrified West Coast Main Line.