London & Freight Part 1: Reshaping the Network


In our previous posts on the shape of London’s rail network, we looked at how our infrastructure legacy gives rise to the pattern of services which concentrates demand onto the city core and its ring of termini. While London’s population and travel to work area have grown enormously, the core has largely remained the same as it was in the 1860s. The challenge is to reshape the network to expand the city core and break free from this legacy.

New cross-city lines such as Crossrail and Thameslink will clearly help. Not only do they provide increased capacity and new journey opportunities, but they are inherently more efficient as they avoid complex and time-consuming turnarounds at the termini. They reduce the dominance of the termini, and this will help encourage the expansion of the core into areas that hitherto had been relatively inaccessible despite their proximity to the city.

In our follow-up that took a peek into the future, we looked at TfL’s aspiration for a pattern of “strategic interchanges”, linked by orbital services that will build on TfL’s highly successful Overground model.

Examples of Strategic Interchanges

Examples of Strategic Interchanges (From the MTS)

However we saw trouble ahead, partly because it wasn’t entirely clear what a strategic interchange was, but also because the orbital routes connecting them are getting close to capacity. It is also clear that even with the investment proposed for the next control period (CP5, 2014-2019), as summarised in TfL’s July 2011 recommendations for HLOS2, by 2020 the projected overcrowding on the orbital routes will still be among the worst on the capital’s network. Then just a few short months later, in November TfL reported on their London Overground Impacts Study, which contained the infographic below showing revised projections for overcrowding, which were more severe and will come by 2016 rather than 2020.

Forecast Crowding in 2016

Forecast Crowding in 2016

It’s clear that TfL does not have much time on its side to come up with some solutions, but as the Rail Utilisation Strategies have shown, these are not likely to come easily.

The orbital routes and their strategic interchanges will be explored in more detail in later posts looking at London north, east, south and west. But a key theme emerging from these is the difficulty in providing capacity for freight alongside passenger services. The West London Line (WLL), North London Line (NLL) and Gospel Oak-Barking line (GOBLIN) are important strategic freight routes on which metro services have to be interleaved, but these two traffic patterns have very different characteristics and do not mix well.

TfL’s aspirations for a network of strategic interchanges linked by its Overground services will depend on its success in balancing freight flows alongside passenger, and this is becoming a challenge as both markets are growing rapidly. And given that most freight flows in London are destined for other places, surely the obvious solution is to relocate cross-London freight to new routes outside London?

So it is to freight we now turn, and casting the net a long way beyond London’s boundaries, and TfL’s purlieu, and indeed London Reconnections’ realm and comfort zone. We occasionally embark upon distant explorations, for instance on how a new chord at Nuneaton will help ease pressure on the NLL. Mwmbwls’ coverage of the Haven ports and the new London Gateway terminal suggests that London is ill-prepared for the container loads that will soon be churning forth. Perhaps of greatest concern is the inability for DfT and TfL to come to agreement over that most low-hanging of investment fruit: the electrification of the GOBLIN route from Barking to Gospel Oak. If this is a sign of decision-making to come then London has major freight problems ahead ? both road and rail ? and TfL may find its aspirations for the Overground and its strategic interchanges getting stuck in the jam.

But as ever we leap ahead of ourselves, so first a look at the various strategies and what they can tell us about freight in and through London.

No shortage of strategies

Sadly for this author, this is no idle flick through a Rail Utilisation Strategy (RUS) and a swift write-up: freight is covered in pretty much every RUS, plus it has one all of its own. Plus there is also DfT’s 2009 report which sets out its vision for the Strategic Freight Network (SFN) and the investment priorities for CP5 (2014/15 to 2018/19) and beyond.

The Rail Freight Strategy

The Rail Freight Strategy

On top of this TfL produced a Rail Freight Strategy in 2007, which has been built into the 2010 Mayor’s Transport Strategy. The Mayor also produces Supplementary Planning Guidance (SPG) documents to provide further detail on particular policies in the London Plan, including the 2007 SPG on land for transport (PDF), which we will draw upon in future posts.

It would seem rather unfair if we didn’t flag up the ill-fated Strategic Rail Authority’s own 2001 Freight Strategy (PDF). In these heady pre-RUS days, it is interesting that the SRA took such a keen interest in freight, and indeed introduced many of the proposals that were developed in subsequent strategies.

But before immersing ourselves in routes and destinations, the obvious question that arises from all of these worthy documents is: who is in charge, where does the buck stop? Or alternatively, what is TfL’s role in rail freight in London, and how does it relate to DfT, Network Rail, the Train Operating Companies (TOCs), the London boroughs, distribution companies, developers and others?

Perhaps it is all a bit of a team effort. For instance, the SFN investment program is developed by the Strategic Freight Network Steering Group. This was set up by Network Rail in 2007 and brings together stakeholders including the freight operating companies and freight users, the Association of Train Operating Companies (representing passenger operators), DfT, Wales Assembly Government and Transport Scotland. From the TfL February 2011 ‘Rail and Underground Panel, Managing Director’s report, Agenda item 6’: (PDF):

7.22 The Strategic Freight Network Steering Group, of which London Rail is a member, is continuing to optimise spending of the available funding in control period 4 (2009-14) and is looking at investment priorities for control period 5 (2014-19).

7.23 The London and South East RUS draft for consultation looks at long term freight routing options, with the strategy being to avoid freight passing through the London area unless there is no realistic alternative. This approach and the individual routings is wholly consistent with the Mayor’s Transport Strategy

The stakeholder groups for the SFN and the 2007 Freight RUS are very similar. Given that the Freight RUS feeds into all the regional RUSs, including the 2011 London & South East RUS, it is no surprise that they all appear to sing off the same song sheet.

However what happens when investment options run out and the stakeholders find themselves fighting for precious rail space? There is a hint of this tucked away in the London & South East RUS (Sec 9.2.6 p161):

In some instances where capacity is severely constrained, consideration may need to be given to whether the allocation of capacity to freight services should be weighed against the use of that capacity by lightly-loaded passenger services.

At first glance this is eminently sensible: cut lightly used passenger services to release extra freight paths. But this may not be so straightforward in practice given the positions that the TOCs, passenger groups and the regulator might take.

More to the point, the issue that TfL faces is the need to create capacity for additional passenger services and freight paths. And as we shall see, for TfL to create more paths for Overground services on the orbital lines, it needs to persuade someone to invest in improvements in places like Leicester, Kenilworth, Ely and Basingstoke. This must provide TfL with an interesting challenge.

But it still takes us back to the original question: when it comes to the crunch, who decides? This of course appears to be in a state of flux with the recent announcement of the Mayor’s Rail Vision. Although the prime focus is on passenger services, it represents a fundamental shift in terms of strategic decision-making for inner London rail services, and inevitably this will include freight. As this saga unfolds, we’ll explore this further in Part 3.

Things come, things go

The first thing to know about rail freight in London is that most of it goes through, even if some of it goes up to distribution centres in the Midlands and comes back in lorries. TfL’s 2007 Rail Freight Strategy sums it up nicely:

3.14 This situation reflects London’s position as the hub of the UK rail network. The railways were built as a series of radial routes serving the main London termini. The ‘orbital’ routes (North, West, South London Lines, Gospel Oak to Barking route, etc) allow freight to pass between these radial routes. This arrangement has worked well historically, but competing needs have emerged more recently due to the significant growth in both passenger and freight services.

3.15 TfL wishes to introduce step change improvements in the quality of orbital passenger rail services in the next few years. At the same time the volumes of freight transiting London – but not serving the city – are expected to continue growing at a faster rate than rail freight in general, mainly due to major port developments. Strategic solutions are required which recognise the orbital routes’ new role as intensively used mixed railways. In this light a major task of this strategy is to set out TfL’s view of which routes should be developed

Perhaps we should argue that these “competing needs” have emerged because London has grown beyond its historic core, i.e. it is a spatial growth towards the hitherto safe realms of the orbitals. Therefore we have a systemic problem, and this is unlikely to involve a choice of what route should be developed, but rather what the new system should look like.

The 2007 Freight RUS provides some useful context before we zoom into to London and 2011. The maps below show the national base case at 2005, showing the freight services that ran and relating this to the freight train paths available. This is the second thing to know about rail freight: more freight paths are booked in the Working Timetable than are actually used, in order to provide operational flexibility, to adapt to customer requirements and market-driven fluctuations and for operational flexibility. On mixed-use routes with competing demands for limited spare capacity, such as the Great Eastern Main Line (GEML) and the southern end of the East Coast Main Line (WCML), utilisation of freight paths tends to be higher than average. This is also where creating additional paths in the timetable is likely to be problematic.

2004/2005 Average Daily Freight Trains (One Direction)

2004/2005 Average Daily Freight Trains (One Direction)

Actual Freight Path Utilisation on Key Sections

Actual Freight Path Utilisation on Key Sections

Around London it is clear that the East Coast Mainline (ECML) uses most of its freight paths, and traffic on the GEML is relatively intensive. In contrast the Channel Tunnel routes from the south east do not pose a problem: a minimum of 35 specified paths/day in each direction between the Channel Tunnel and Wembley Freight Operating Centre were protected by Network Rail for the duration of the Channel Tunnel/Railways Usage Contract up to 2052, and at present most of these paths are unused.

The 2007 Freight RUS estimated demand for 2014-15 and then factored in the impacts of the new London Gateway port at Shell Haven and its effect on traffic from the Haven Ports (Felixstowe and Harwich Bathside Bay), and of W10 gauge enhancement between Southampton and the WCML. These are Sensitivities 2 and 3 on the map below, which shows the traffic growth in London in more detail. Clearly the orbitals are going to take the strain.

Additional Trains by 2014/2015

Additional Trains by 2014/2015

What the map does not show is the effect on specific points such as key junctions, or the route options and their limitations. For this we need to look in more detail at the London area and at the specific freight flows, which we explore in Part 2.

Before that a little more context, on the Strategic Freight Network and what this might mean for London, and more specifically on the vexed issue of loading gauge.

Strategic Freight Network (SFN)

The concept of a Strategic Freight Network was outlined in the government’s 2007 White Paper:

9.29. The Government envisages that the SFN would both complement, and be integrated with, the existing rail network. It would provide an enhanced core trunk network capable of accommodating more and longer freight trains, with a selective ability to handle wagons with higher axle loads and greater loading gauge.

9.30. With the provision of appropriate diversionary routes, such a network would deliver not only greater capacity and reliability, but also improved seven-day and year-round availability. It would also allow the network to accommodate disruption more easily.

The SFN is not is a separate network of dedicated freight-only routes, but rather a program of enhancements to the existing network. This program is developed by a stakeholder group led by Network Rail, the membership of which includes TfL, and which appears to be broadly the same group which developed the 2007 Freight RUS.

In September 2009 DfT published its Strategic Rail Freight Network: The Longer Term Vision (PDF), which clarifies the SFN’s purpose and the challenges:

Conflicts occur between passenger and freight requirements (and between different types of passenger services) at numerous points on the railway, eroding network capacity and reliability. At present the network is almost nowhere optimised for freight, which reduces the efficiency of the UK’s rail distribution logistics…

The SFN is intended to provide a framework for targeting investment and network management better to meet freight requirements and to resolve such conflicts. This should both improve the logistical efficiency of the railway and secure network capacity and reliability gains to the benefit of all users.

That gives us a little more information on the decision-making process behind freight investment, but it also raises the interesting issue of attributing benefits and costs to different rail operators. We have seen how the enthusiasm to take the investment lead can be dulled if agreement cannot be found on sharing the costs and the rewards, for instance with GOBLIN electrification. Perhaps the SFN will provide a better framework to identify and prioritise investments, with Network Rail undertaking the investment and claiming the costs back from the various rail operators. Indeed NR is required by the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) to publish SFN proposals in its Strategic Business Plan, so one assumes this is the route through to investment.

The 2009 vision document outlines the investments committed in the current CP4 to 2014 and the more ambitious aspirations for CP5 and beyond. To flavour the more detailed discussions our following posts, these include:

  • Upgrading for longer 775m and heavier trains on key intermodal routes, which should become the design standard for new terminal developments and enhancements
  • Moving to a 7-day/24-hour capability which requires new approaches to engineering possessions and the development of diversionary routes with appropriate capability for each strategic freight route
  • More efficient operations with the aim of through running of freight trains in preference to layovers in passing loops

Each of these has major implications for London’s rail network in terms of timetabling and route infrastructure. For instance, timetabling regular paths and signalling for 750m freight trains on lines shared with metro passenger services is likely to be challenging, and indeed may not always be possible.

But to put this SFN vision in context, the 2011 London & South East RUS includes demand projections and train path requirements for each of the intermodal routes, which we will explore in Part 2. These are based on a 6-day railway and 640m trains, and note that there is yet no investment funding committed for this. So the SFN vision is a considerable way ahead of the investment reality..

On specific routes, aspirations include:

  • East-West Line (Oxford-Bedford with upgraded links to the West Coast Main Line (WCML) and MML
  • 4-tracking the Midland Mainline (MML)
  • electrification of freight routes, including the MML (see below), GOBLIN and routes outside London that could take cross-London freight, e.g. Ipswich to Nuneaton

According to the 2009 vision document, DfT has also asked Network Rail to undertake two freight routeing studies to recommend:

the preferred routes between London and the South-East, and the Midlands and North of England, and the enhancements necessary to accommodate rail freight activity forecast to 2030 (the ‘Routes to the North’ (RTN) study); and an optimal cross-London freight strategy (CLFS)

We’re interested to know more about these studies. Will they be published, and have the conclusions already fed through into the 2011 London & South East RUS?

Before we look at loading gauge, perhaps it’s worth reiterating the question above: who decides? The SFN is being developed by a stakeholder group, led by Network Rail, but presumably with DfT (one of the stakeholders) ultimately providing the investment funding. This approach may be reaping rewards in providing a comprehensive overview of the challenges and at least a vision to work towards but, given that the network is close to capacity in the London area, is it closing the gap between aspiration and investment reality?

How big is a train?

So finally to the conundrum of loading gauge. Your LR writing team, also being of varied shape and size, have collectively discovered a peculiar fascination with the topic, so much so that you can expect a post on this alone in the near future.

Loading Gauge Envelopes and Container Sizes

Loading Gauge Envelopes and Container Sizes

In the London area, loading gauges range from W6 to W8, but are predominantly W7 or W8. W10 gauge allows 9’6″ high containers to be conveyed on standard-height wagons and this is important to maintain rail’s attractiveness in the intermodal market. But in London only the NLL and more recently GOBLIN have been cleared for W10. Equally, the mix of loading gauges means that diversionary routes can often be long and circuitous, or trains have to be cancelled when the main route is unavailable.

The 2009 SFN Vision document maps out the aspirations for loading gauge:

  • Combining MML electrification with infrastructure enhancements to provide a UIC GB+ loading gauge route to the north
  • W12 to be implemented as the standard loading gauge for all strategic container routes including diversionary routes, with small in-fill gauge clearance schemes being progressed as opportunity and funding allows
  • Extending a European UIC GB+ gauge freight link from HS1 to the MML which, along with electrification, provides the opportunity to create a UIC GB+ gauge cleared route to the Midlands

We’ll return to this potential new European gauge route through London in Part 3, but the diagram above shows why such a GA or GB gauge route requires segregation due to its extra width and the need to set back platform faces. HS1 was built to European gauge and in theory GB+ freights could run through to the NLL at Camden Road East Jn, but because there are no facilities there to tranship or unload cargo these trains terminate at Ripple Lane where the HS1 route runs along side the LT&SR Tilbury Loop. Therefore creating a European GB+ gauge route to the Midlands clearly requires some thinking through and a robust strategy, rather than a piecemeal in-fill approach.

The London & SE RUS takes the pragmatic approach:

Currently only the CTRL is cleared to GB+ and its further application may remain restricted to new lines…

Whilst a business case does not exist at this stage for specific enhancement projects to deliver W12 on the routes highlighted… it is recommended that W12 gauge is considered as a starting point whenever structures are renewed across the network, or new structures built on the routes highlighted as W12 aspirations… In some cases it may not be practical to renew a structure to W12, but for all those routes… structure rebuilds/new builds should not deliver less than W10 clearance.

So, that’s enough context. In the following article we focus on intermodal (container) traffic, which is by far the largest freight growth sector and the most relevant to London. We’ll explore the four main traffic flows: from Southampton, Essex Thameside (Tilbury and the new London Gateway at Shell Haven), the Haven Ports (Felixstowe and Harwich Bathside Bay) and the Channel Tunnel. Then in our final part we’ll explore some of the options and the implications, including what it might mean for TfL, the Overground and its strategic interchanges.

Written by Lemmo