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"Growing railfreight: the Tarmac experience" by Chris Swan, Tarmac senior manager, rail and shipping: Edinburgh meeting of 4 December 2017.

Chris Swan, Tarmac senior manager, rail and shipping at the meeting.d

Chris Swan, Tarmac senior manager, rail and shipping at the meeting.

© John Yellowlees, 2017

Four years ago, Chris Swan came from DB Schenker to head up the rail department at Tarmac, formerly Lafarge Tarmac and now owned by Irish company CRH, the largest Heavyside business of its kind in North America and probably Europe, owning providers of asphalt, concrete, aggregates and cement.

Tarmac is among the largest customers of the UK railfreight industry, which in the last two years has experienced a real dynamic shift as coal declined to an extent that no-one anticipated. In the consequent structural change the freight operating companies are struggling to be in profit and their core markets have switched to construction and containers.

However the time has surely come to reflect that customers in other countries will tell you that British freight customers receive excellent service, yet on the policy front, despite the Department of Transport developing a railfreight strategy, the sector has been fighting some rearguard actions against a number of recent policy announcements and Lord Adonis's National Infrastructure Commission report, which is really bad, declaring on pages 82 and 83 of its latest report that in Britain railfreight is a "problem" and it gets in the way of passenger trains while restricting the hours of overnight engineering work to maintain and improve the network. Yet surely everyone, whether they take the train or not, benefits from lorries being taken off the roads?

Railfreight needs to be more vocal about its successes. One train can carry enough material to build thirty houses while taking sixty lorries off the road. The construction sector is better when it works together, and has just evolved a joint safety course. Tarmac are moving more material by rail this year, and since 2016 has introduced thirteen new trainsets for new traffic or to replace old trains, and has opened or started operating from eight new terminals ranging from a reconnected quarry in North Yorkshire to pop-up sites that can be operational in a month. Now it is setting targets for the year 2020 when most haulage contracts come to an end, creating goals for safety, infrastructure and people. Innovative ideas on railfreight have come from the customer working collaboratively with the freight operators, and expansion of his team has already paid for itself in performance improvement and initiatives delivered. Tarmac is pro-rail, that is what his team does, and by improving safety and service while applying a different business model seeks to move materials more efficiently to the market.

Dunbar is now a real success, having been turned around, is now despatching output by rail as far afield as West Thurrock in Essex. Forty-six new wagons are now in service, with a third new trainset due to arrive next year, enabling more output to be moved in fewer trains. Tarmac has some challenges with the layout of sidings in place there and the lack of a wagonload network in Scotland inhibits scope for moving more bagged cement which has to go on the back of bulk trains. They dont currently run any aggregates by rail in Scotland. In terms of rail paths getting to Inverness or Aberdeen and back in the same day is a struggle, a bridge near Inverness and other limitations challenging capacity as demand increases, and access to markets in Northern or South-East England can be damaged by engineering possessions on the East Coast Main Line unless these are notified and planned for well in advance.

Tarmac welcomes the work being done on promoting awareness of railfreight's potential by CILT and Transport Scotland, as good a partner in government as one could wish for, who have backed their Strategies with actions and a plan, using cement delivered by rail to build the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Road, but are now waiting to see what the industry can deliver. It needs a stronger vision talking up its potential so that it can pitch a role for how railfreight can deliver in a low-carbon way into the strategies of the new city-regions headed by Mayors and devolved administrations. Gone are the days when railfreight could rely on spare route-capacity to move coal leisurely down the Aire Valley, and with Tarmac's trains averaging 16 mph despite their potential for 60 the industry needs to use data better so as to promote a smarter view of network utilisation, makes better calculations on how fuel is used and looks to better ways of connecting quarries with customers with sidings at more locations, longer loops and improved signalling.

A role for railfreight needs to be factored into major projects like HS2, Heathrow third runway and new nuclear power stations, and to maximise this we need early engagement. Some European countries have stopped charging track access for freight we need to challenge the British presumption that such charges can go up year on year while freezing fuel duty. Scotland has a unique geography with widely-separated population centres that is conducive to railfreight, but while offering great prices and service, the industry struggles to get started on new products and maybe we need to contemplate switching some of the subsidy that at present goes towards passenger trains into starting a network of basic railfreight operations into which the customer can then buy.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.

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