Posted 16th June 2015 | 6 Comments

Minister signals possible return of parcels by train

RAIL minister Claire Perry has admitted that successive governments have failed to invest sufficiently in infrastructure, and declared herself 'determined to turn things round' in response to rapidly rising demand. She also signalled that new ways of using rail are being actively investigated, including the carriage of parcels and other low-bulk goods on passenger trains.

She told an audience of rail engineers in London that transport networks are now full, and that railfreight was at the heart of the government's plans to upgrade the railway system between now and 2020.

She said: "This government wants more than anything to deliver balanced, sustainable economic growth. And you can’t grow a local, regional or national economy without moving people and products."

She pointed out that railfreight's share of the market has doubled to 11 per cent since the sector was privatised 20 years ago, and that the UK is doing better at moving goods by rail than many other countries, including China, which is often highlighted as a progressive country as far as railways are concerned.

She also accepted the Rail Delivery Group's calculation that railfreight is worth £1.6 billion a year to the British economy.

She continued: "Both the Doncaster North Chord and the Ipswich Chord have given us significant improvements in rail freight journey times out of Immingham and Felixstowe. We have just opened the Reading flyover, providing grade separation to improve both rail freight performance and reliability for passengers.

"At the same time, we are looking at new opportunities for carrying goods by rail. We know there have been pilot schemes for carrying low-bulk goods on passenger trains, such as the partnership between East Midlands Trains and 5PL on routes between Leicester, Nottingham and London. There should be scope to grow this market. If passenger trains have off-peak services with very few passengers, why should they not make use of available space to offer a parcel service?"

However, she also warned that rail faces fresh challenges as well: "Electrification of the road network will challenge rail’s green credentials. We’ve seen around 30,000 plug-in car and plug-in van grant claims submitted since the grant scheme began in 2010. Autonomous road vehicles and the platooning of lorries are being developed around the world, and trials of autonomous road vehicles will take place here in the UK in Greenwich, Bristol, Milton Keynes and Coventry.

"Rail needs to respond to these developments. Just as we have with road vehicles, we need to think about how we power the rail network and ensure our use of energy is efficient. The electrification programme is key, but electrification is unlikely to be cost-effective everywhere. That’s why there is so much interest in the Independently Powered EMU – also known as the battery powered train – which has recently completed several successful weeks in passenger service.

"The energy challenge will be more acute for freight, where you need a locomotive that can run for long periods on non-electrified routes."

She concluded by asking for the industry's help: "What do you need from my department and from government? More joined-up investment with passenger-facing improvements? Better planning guidance to make sure critical road and rail interfaces are built where they should be? Help in raising the profile of railfreight? After all, you are a great privatisation success story.

"I want to listen to you and your colleagues across the industry."

Reader Comments:

Views expressed in submitted comments are that of the author, and not necessarily shared by Railnews.

  • Dee Ellis, Barrow-in-Furness

    I challenge an earlier view that loss of Royal Mail and Red Star were caused by "terrible reliability".

    Under BR and privatised Rail express systems, the performance of mail trains improved and was far better than was achieved by passenger sectors. The letter mail contract was based on bonus/penalty payments and reliability was consistently good. I suggest other factors contributed to the ultimate loss of most of the mail-by-rail business as renewal of the 10 year contract approached, not least the changing market and relative costs. Postal traffic by rail changed from being essentially a premium first class mail network (relatively low volume) to that of long-distance bulk transits.

    In my opinion Red Star did go off the rails because it departed from the simple formula of its inception, which was based on a premium charge for a station to station transit by passenger train. It was strictly based on carrying parcels from point A to point B by through train. Red Star at the outset was unbeatable and offered a same day service based on consignees handing in at the station and recipients collecting at destination. Other premium carriers including Royal Mail and Securicor were users of Red Star!

    Sadly this simple framework was compromised by abandoning the strict direct train service concept. To appease some customers, traffic became transferable from train to train (with collections and deliveries added). Red Star became a general carrier rather than the niche operator on which its reputation was built. Add to the mix commission based salesmen on short-term contracts; charges compromised to win customer accounts and very quickly traffic was acquired totally unsuited for conveyance by passenger train (flat pack furniture being an example!). New passenger rolling stock, faster schedules, shorter dwell times at stations made conveyance of parcels traffic increasingly problematic and no doubt customer satisfaction declined.

    The parcels sector did experiment with 'Track 29', intended to take heavier consignments and specifically palletised light freight traffic by dedicated van trains. This proved financially unsustainable.

  • claydon william, Norwich, Norfolk

    The cessation of 'Red Star' and Royal mail bulk movements by rail didn't have anything to do with 'privatisation'; more to do with completely terrible reliability and 'customer service'.

    The railway is a much more 'reliable' carrier now; and if existing passenger assets can be used for new parcels and 'light-freight' carriage' (off-peak and overnight); then this makes complete business sense.

    The world has moved on from having retail units; ('Red Star Offices'); so I suspect this new business model will be based on business sector focussed low-cost logistics fundamentals, and will include complete transport solution options; (full collection and delivery).

  • Graham, Basingstoke

    With the (re)advent of parcels being picked up from stations I could see that it would make sense for trains to carry the parcels to the station. Given this tends to be from stations which are manned a lot of the time it is unlikely to require much in the way of extra staff hours.

    If passenger trains were used it could be fairly easy to utilise rolling stock which is otherwise lightly used in the off peak periods to provide extra space to accommodate the parcels.

  • brainforge, Hertfordshire

    Interesting idea but would need some creative out of the box thinking to implement successfully.

    * Train crew - extra person needed on train to load/unload parcels?
    Opportunities to combine with other duties - light user routes?
    * Station facilities - platform secure storage for parcels?
    Avoid need for parcel staff to continuously man station.
    * More fold-up type seating space on trains?
    For parcels, cycles, wheelchairs, buggies, large luggage.
    Didn't the old guard area provide such - except no fold-up seating or grab rails!
    * Improved off-peak formation flexibility?
    Fluctuations in off-peak demand are not always well catered for.
    Dedicating some off-peak space for parcels will make that worse.

  • Tony Pearce, Reading

    Unfortunately Red Star became City Link which went bust on Christmas Day. The Parcels sector is very competative and there are little profits to be made there. Do the Postal Trains just carry Letters - or do they carry Parcels as well ? If they don't its an opportunity, - but I presume that most urgent high value packages are best carried singly door-to-door by Motorbike.

  • Melvyn Windebank, Canvey Island, Essex

    I remember when BR had its Red Star Parcels service which transported parcels around the country but all was lost when rail was privatised .
    This loss was further compounded when the Post Office moved its deliveries from rail to road adding thousands more lorries to congested roads.

    We now have a new opportunity for parcels by rail when one considers the growth of ordering goods on-line and these new operators like Doodle who are opening outlets at stations like Waterloo. While new style passenger trains with walk through carriages and double leaf doors and standing areas offer the space for parcels off peak or on dedicated trains like the trains the post office already have and let's not forget the French Banana High Speed Trains used to carry post across France.

    However once lost it is difficult to recreate a service like Red Star Parcels was and so will need to be created in stages.

    As for electric road vehicles these surely are for use for collection and delivery at each end with rail doing the trunk haul currently done with HGV lorries on congested motorways .

    The recent trial run into Euston needs to be repeated and become a regular service although the rebuild of Euston for HS2 may mean another route might need to be developed .