A Rural Rail Freight Revival?
New technology and some lateral thinking could hold the key to a rail freight revival on our rural and regional railways. Last year's report for the Wales Timber Transport Group by consultants IBI Group (of which I was a team member) concluded that if forthcoming timber-carrying trials with the Freight Multiple Unit (FMU) are successful, then the FMU has the potential to help rail to secure a significant share of the Welsh timber transport market.
In Wales at present, rail is only competitive for long-haul trainload or semi-trainload flows from Scotland to Kronospan at Chirk, on the Shrewsbury-Chester line. However, the FMU could hold the key to improving the economics of rail freight for shorter hauls and/or lower train payloads than would normally be commercially viable. The FMU concept was successfully trialled on a number of food and drink and fast-moving consumer goods flows a couple of years ago, with SRA support.
The key features of the FMU are driving control cabs at each end of the train, reducing shunting movements and turn-round times, and avoiding the need for run-round loops. Engine power is spread beneath both control cabs, thereby minimising axleloads and allowing the FMU to operate over rural routes barred to the modern generation of freight locomotives such as the Class 66.
Due to relatively modest gross weight (typically up to 300 tonnes) and a high power-to-weight ratio, the FMU has performance characteristics similar to Class 150/156 passenger trains and can therefore make maximum use of available train paths, without being shunted into sidings to let passenger trains overtake.
The 'short and frequent' pattern of FMU operation - with train lengths typically 120 metres or less - avoids the crossing loop length constraints which can limit loco-hauled operation of conventional freight trains on single-track routes.
FMUs are not cheap to buy - perhaps £1m compared to £150,000 for a 44t truck . Neither are they cheap to operate - so the key to success is very high utilisation of the equipment, and ideally very short road hauls at the source, with the FMU then running fast to private sidings at sawmills and board mills.
The Forestry Commission and Inbis Rail, the engineering company which has been developing the FMU concept, will be running a commercial trial from a temporary timber railhead in Aberystwyth to Kronospan at Chirk, starting on 7th February. If the trial is a success then major flows of timber could once again be moving within Wales in the next 10 years. Much of the new rail business could come from the reforested Welsh Valleys and along the Central Wales Line, which hasn't seen regular through freight for 40 years!
Some conventional rail freight operators remain sceptical that the FMU can ever be commercially viable - and it still isn't clear why the German version ended up rusting in DB sidings. But it's clear that a rural freight revival based on the FMU would do much to strengthen the economic and environmental value of 'community' rail routes, as well as feeding important new flows on to the main line network.
Obviously there are a number of parallels between Wales and Scotland, and the recent announcement of a proposed major pulp, paper and saw mill on the old smelter site at Invergordon raises the prospect of substantial new flows for rail freight. While much of the 4m tonne annual input of logs and woodchip (25% of Scotland's timber production) would come by sea, up to 1m tonnes could be available for rail movement.
The key to a decent rail share of inward raw material movement will be big cost-effective trainload movements from key sources such as Dumfries & Galloway, but the Welsh FMU experiment could throw up a new option for rail to compete for smaller flows of timber over shorter distances. So, following the groundbreaking innovations of the Safeway train and the lineside loading at Kinbrace, perhaps the Far North Line could be host to another rural rail freight revival, based on imaginative use of innovative technology?