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"British railfreight in the 21st century" by David Cross Head of Customer Service, DB Schenker Rail Logistics: Edinburgh meeting of 14 January 2014

David Cross with members at the Edinburgh meeting.d

David Cross with members at the Edinburgh meeting.

© John Yellowlees, 2014

DB Schenker is a world-wide bulk operator, two-thirds of whose 71,500 staff are in logistics. It runs about 750 around trains a day, and in Britain has 2800 employees, half of them train-drivers scattered throughout the country who provide for intermodal, international, automotive, bulk and general freight. Whereas containers are a regular flow, bulk flows are not since they may be tied to the arrival of say a coal-carrying ship at Hunterston, so it has proved sensible to have a single Production sector responsible for all the assets matching another sector that deals with Sales and Support.

In Britain DBS's rail HQ is at Doncaster reporting to Germany / IFF, whereas its Logistics and forwarding team is based at Heathrow reporting to Sweden. The Ministry Defence remains a user of general freight, and the minimum load that DBS would accept is a single wagon: but opportunities in Britain are limited unlike in Germany where all chemical plants tend to have a private siding. Railfreight is a challenging sector with five main British players - a similar number have come and gone - but volume is forecast to double by 2043.

Imports have replaced exports, and lower value bulk are being displaced by fast-moving consumer goods with the growth of containers which have now overtaken coal as the largest single commodity. Since privatisation the passenger rail sector has become very successful, so more railfreight now has to go by night. A single ship can carry up to 16000 containers, and as well as deepsea there are also international flows through the Channel Tunnel and domestic movements for many of the main supermarket groups.

Railfreight volumes have risen by an average of 2.5% annually since 1993, continuing their upward trend even during the 2009-12 recession, and Network Rail now plays an active part in forecasting. With layovers sometimes needed to get a path, right-time arrival is becoming more important than right-time departure to the customer.

Trading as Transfesa, DBS's automotive sector moves 6 million road vehicles annually worldwide using 1.7 million square metres of warehousing. 250 trains daily in 20 countries service 18 hubs, and Britain exports almost as many cars as we import. There are 1.3 million movements annually of vehicles, with ro-ro sea transport supplementing rail. The oldest flow is Dagenham-Valencia with a gauge change at the Spanish frontier. Trains convey components as well as vehicles, and Toyota parts now move from Mossend to Birmingham's Hams Hall terminal.

Multi-customer solutions with several sharing a train now deliver greater frequencies and higher efficiency, with backloads conveyed and trains bearing the base-load supported by trucks for the peaks. Intermodal cross-docking and providing ancillary services including warehousing some other international flows include Birmingham-Domodossola, Wroclaw-Barking using HS1 and Istanbul-Koln with onward trucking to the UK, and 20, 40, 45 foot-long containers, swapbodies and complete vehicles are conveyed. Completely knocked-down flows of automotive parts are headlined by the Leipzig-Shenyang (China) train taking 40 containers which gives 23-day delivery door to door and brings a backload of IT goods to Europe.

Tunnels at Ipswich and Southampton have been cleared for 9'6" containers on low-wheel wagons, and access to Grangemouth is to be improved, while the recent Lifting the Spirit trial has shown the potential of the Mossend-Elgin gauge-cleared route for moving whisky and foodstuffs. Resignalling will allow longer trains with 700 metres a possibility on the West Coast Main Line. There are limits, and it is unlikely that 10'6" containers will penetrate Britain beyond Barking : nevertheless enormous scope exists for railfreight to help customers improve their carbon management, calculating emissions and offering them expertise to allow their development of greener supply chains.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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