The decline of Willesden was particularly dramatic - from handling 11 daily Freightliner departures in 1989 its throughput fell rapidly and it faced complete closure in 1992. Stratford lasted a little longer, before its residual business was switched to the maritime terminal at Tilbury in 1994.
Further casualties of the reduced domestic business were Bristol (closed in 1992) and Glasgow Gushetfaulds, whose remaining traffic was transferred to Coatbridge in 1993. In Manchester, the original Trafford Park Freightliner terminal was mothballed in 1993 and its traffic transferred to the adjacent Euroterminal, which would otherwise have stood idle awaiting the start-up of Channel Tunnel intermodal traffic. The fortunes of the two terminals would later be reversed!
Despite this rationalisation, Freightliner was still far from being the healthiest part of the BR freight business. The Wisconsin Central-led consortium that would buy most of Britain’s rail freight operations - later to become English Welsh & Scottish Railways (EWS) and eventually part of DB Schenker - stated that it was not interested in Freightliner, despite the possible synergies with Channel Tunnel intermodal traffic.
In the event, it was a brave management buy-out that took ownership of Freightliner on May 25 1996, at a relatively modest price of £5.39 million. The Freightliner brand name was retained (it still encapsulated the business 30 years after its inception), and the new company was officially known as Freightliner (1995) Limited. The Government of the day supported the business by awarding it a £75m Track Access Grant to cover the period up to 2000.
One of the new company’s most urgent tasks was to renew its ageing locomotive fleet. In 1997 Freightliner commissioned the rebuilding of six Class 47s to create the Class 57 design, with reconditioned General Motors power units and reworked ex-Class 56 alternator groups. The Class 57s performed well, and in 1999 six further examples were ordered.
However, during that year Freightliner switched its policy in favour of buying new, and opted for the Class 66 design already chosen by EWS. The first Class 66s were destined for what would later become Heavy Haul traffic, but by the end of 2000 the company had 25 class members on its books, and some were allocated to the intermodal business.
In terms of traffic, deep-sea boxes led the way. In 1998 Freightliner signed a five-year contract with P&O Nedlloyd to move up to 40,000 40ft containers annually from Southampton. Carryings from Felixstowe in the same year reached a record total of 250,000 containers. The original Freightliner terminal at Trafford Park was re-opened and upgraded, and a new mini-terminal was provided at Crewe to relieve the pressure on Trafford Park. The company also increased its use of third-party terminals, such as Doncaster Railport, Widnes O’Connors, Hams Hall and Daventry.
Containers were becoming ever bigger, and in 1998 Freightliner began using a fleet of Tiphook pocket wagons with a deck height of just 475mm to carry 9ft 6in boxes on core routes. However, both the pocket wagons and the earlier ‘Lowliners’ came with handicaps such as a poor weight to length ratio - the best long-term solution was to increase the loading gauge on the railway network.
The new century brought Freightliner a mixture of successes and setbacks. The deep-sea business was underpinned by several high-profile contracts with firms such as OOCL and P&O Nedlloyd, while South Wales traffic was boosted by the opening of Wentloog depot in 2001 (replacing the cramped site at Cardiff Pengam).
In October 2000 Freightliner operated the first revenue-earning train from the new TDG container terminal at Grangemouth, but this traffic did not grow as expected and switched to EWS in the following year. Efforts to serve the European market via Purfleet were similarly short-lived.
Freightliner’s small-scale West Highland operation ceased in June 2001, with the aluminium billet from Fort William going over to road transport. And in 2002 Freightliner scaled down its hub and spoke operation at Crewe and ran more direct trains between ports and inland terminals - losing a few routes in the process, but achieving better efficiency overall.
During the past ten years Freightliner has continued to do what it does best - moving full trainloads of deep-sea boxes between a small number of ports and inland distribution terminals.
The introduction of Class 70 locomotives in late 2009 allowed longer trains to be carried - subject to signalling and siding length constraints. The new Felixstowe North railhead, completed in 2013, can comfortably accommodate 30-wagon rakes. Another addition to the network in 2013 was London Gateway, although its rail throughput (shared between Freightliner and DB Schenker) has so far been slow to take off.
The Felixstowe business had benefited in 2004 from a £30m scheme to clear the Ipswich-London corridor to W10 gauge, enabling 9ft 6in boxes to be carried on standard deck wagons to locations such as Daventry, Hams Hall and Trafford Park. Further gauge enhancement schemes were completed in 2011 on the Southampton-Birmingham and Peterborough-Nuneaton routes.
With these schemes in place, low deck wagons are only required on a few routes, such as those from Southampton to Wentloog and Leeds. Rolling stock investment has shifted to ‘Shortliner’ wagons, whose 40ft deck length eliminates the empty space left on 60ft decks when mainly 40ft containers are being carried.
On the debit side, Freightliner stopped serving Barking Ripple Lane in 2007 and Seaforth in 2008. The company pulled out of the Containerbase terminal at Manchester Barton Dock Road in 2011 and Thamesport in 2013. It closed its Wilton depot in 2014, with existing flows transferred to the port-owned terminal at Tees Dock.
But even on the periphery there have been some successes, such as the re-opening of Bristol Freightliner terminal (mainly for imported wine traffic) in 2010. The concept that first saw the light of day in 1965 is still alive and well as it approaches its first half-century. And with coal and steel now in sharp decline, the intermodal business looks to be one of rail freight’s best hopes in the coming decades.
- This feature was published in RAIL 790 on December 23 2015