Mackerel in May, asparagus in autumn and figs in February - the demands of Britain’s shoppers for goods out of season, rapid delivery and specialist produce are today helping to fill 80 more freight trains per week compared to this time last year, according to new research from Network Rail.
Figures show this demand has been steadily increasing over the last decade, with a 75% uplift in the volume of consumer goods travelling by train since 2005.
Today rail freight plays an ever more important role in delivering everything from loo roll and luxury cars to refrigerators and rhubarb across the UK, with trains covering an extra 20,000 miles each month compared to the same time last year and more than 600,000 miles in total. In order to handle the escalating load, Network Rail has been consistently upgrading the railway, with new links to major UK ports being constructed to support foreign trade. New longer freight trains capable of carrying greater loads have also been introduced as well as significant tracks enhancements to improve the flow of freight traffic and ultimately get goods to customers more quickly.
Everything from the latest home technology, to the weekly grocery shop is travelling by rail, including:
- The maiden voyage of luxury cars: With UK car manufacturing hitting a seven-year high and Britain now exporting more than 110,00 cars per year, rail freight today plays a vital role in fuelling Britain’s automotive industry and ensuring new cars reach docks in Southampton and Purfleet on time, ahead of being exported across Europe.
- Five-a-day kept fresh for 53 hours: A weekly seasonal freight service brings salad and fruit 1,100 miles from Spain to Dagenham in the longest temperature controlled train journey in Europe by a single operator (Stobart Rail). Fresh produce is packed into 30 containers and travels via Toulouse, Paris and the channel tunnel in a 53 hour journey, constantly monitored and refrigerated to ensure it arrives fresh.
- You’ve got mail: How does a letter travel from Aberdeen to Newquay in a day? By train - Royal Mail transports around five million items of mail per day by rail freight, with demand expected to rise, as UK parcel volumes grew 3% in the last three months.
Network Rail’s director of freight, Paul McMahon, said: “The next time you enjoy a chocolate bar with your afternoon cuppa, consider that it has more than likely travelled by train to get to you, and at Christmas when you send a flurry of cards to friends and family, they will join millions of other pieces of mail moving daily by train to get to their destination. Quite simply, many of the things we rely on wouldn’t get to us as quickly or efficiently as we expect without rail freight.
“We’re continuing to work on increasing capacity for more freight trains, making the network more efficient to allow longer trains to carry more containers, and importantly separating flows of passenger and freight traffic – and our Railway Upgrade Plan is helping to make this all possible.”
According to the Rail Delivery Group, the rail freight industry is now adding over £1.6bn a year to the UK economy and this is predicted to rise to £2bn in 2023 with continued investment.
Royal Mail Network Operations Director Phil Murphy said: “Rail forms a crucial part of Royal Mail’s integrated logistics network, which supports our ability to deliver letters and parcels to over 29 million address across the UK. Using rail is an effective way to help reduce the time and cost of transporting mail across large distances around the country.”
The Co-operative Group are a key retailer committed to using rail freight, and recently their food logistics team collected an Award for Environmental Contribution thanks to them switching flows of products from the roads onto the UK rail network. Justin Kirkhope, The Co-operative’s National Transport Support Manager, said: “Cutting CO2 emissions and minimising environmental impact is a priority and we believe that moving goods by rail is an efficient, carbon friendly means of transporting large volumes quickly. Congestion and delays are often less of an issue which supports our goal of exceeding our customer’s expectation for delivery, availability and fulfilment.”
The increase in rail freight also continues to fuel British trade. For example, in Southampton where significant changes have been made to improve efficiency, such as extending platform lengths, updating signalling and enhancing terminal technology. With Chinese imports now representing 60% of the containers received through Southampton port, rail freight plays an important role in supporting international trade to the UK.