What Happened to Piggyback Freight?

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Almost 25 years ago I wrote a piece for a popular rail industry/enthusiast magazine about the exciting new developments in freight train technology, but sadly, the plan never came to fruition.

Here’s something of what I wrote back then:

“The past few years have seen some important changes in the way rail freight services are operated throughout Europe – changes which have not been implemented so rapidly or effectively in Britain. It is perhaps more than 30 years since radical changes were proposed and implemented on British Rail, in the aftermath of the Beeching Plan. In 1996, though, the introduction of the Babcock Rail/Thrall piggyback vehicles offers the scope to attract a wider range of freight traffics back to rail network.

Freight nowadays travels commonly in ISO containers, and despite Freightliner services, and fragmented developments of long haul freight, hundreds of articulated lorries are a common sight on Britain’s motorways, often carrying single containers. The more recent introduction of piggyback and swap body vehicles has improved the railway’s ability to attract traffic from the roads, but its adoption in the UK has been much slower than the rest of Europe. A particular example of the successful development of such intermodal services, are the trans-Alpine piggyback workings, where articulated lorries and their trailers have been a feature for some time. In the UK, a Piggyback Consortium was established a couple of years ago, largely inspired by Eurotunnel, and seeking ways to establish a corridor between the Channel Tunnel, Scotland and Ireland, using the West Coast Main Line.   A variety of other freight forwarders, joint ventures, and other business combinations have been set up in recent times, with a view to exploiting the through running offered following the completion of the tunnel.”

ewsBack in 1993, shortly after the privatisation of British Rail, the freight services operated by BR’s freight sectors were taken over by the American owned EWS Railway – or English, Welsh & Scottish if you prefer.  At that time, the physical infrastructure was owned by Railtrack, and neither of these “businesses” were a success, and yet the prospect of 1992’s “Big Bang” – the European single market appeared to open up possibilities.

Plans to implement the new, daily, piggyback rail service between London and Glasgow in the Spring of 1996 were advanced, and according to the “Piggyback Consortium”, with essential loading gauge changes over the route set to cost £70+ million.

The purpose of this innovation was to take much of the long haul “juggernaut” lorries off the UK roads, resulting in less environmental damage, to say nothing of the costs to repair and maintain motorways and trunk routes.   Road lorries were becoming heavier and heavier, from 38 tonnes, to 40 tonnes, and even 44 tonnes – but their use needed Government approval.

“The growth of intermodal activities throughout Europe was mirrored for a time in the UK, during the early 1990s, with such initiatives as ‘Charterail’, using Tiphook Rail’s “swing centre” vehicles, various swap body designs, and the the ‘Trailer Train’ projects. The demise of ‘Charterail’ in 1993 brought a premature pause, in the expansion of combined road and rail freight developments. Shortly after the demise of Charterail, Tiphook were keen to re-introduce their innovative vehicles, and attract road freight traffic, whilst Boalloy Industries resurrected the road-railer idea in 1993. The most recent development of this latter included the first use of ‘curtain sided’ trailers, with road and rail wheels, and variable design geometry of the body, to fit the British and European loading gauges.”

At the time, the UK Government seemed unable to come to a decision about permitting the use of lorries with these increased axle loads, and the delay in finalising a policy contributed to the demise of the piggyback proposal.

The cost of freight movement was also fairly high on the agenda at the time:

“In Britain, the cost of moving freight by road is enormous, and represents a cost (estimated in 1993, and published in the Financial Times in February) to the taxpayer of around £18 billion annually. Against this cost, the revenue from road freight for the Government is only £14 billion, representing an annual loss to UK, and cost to businesses of around £4 billion every year.”

That was 25 years ago – and whilst the DfT and ONS produce a pl;ethora of figures on goods moved, goods lifted, by mode and region, getting the same leve of detail on the cost of those movements is not as easy as it was a quarter of a century ago.  I’d love to publish both volumes carried and the cost today as a comparison, but the numbers are not readily available – just like train performance figures.

Unless of course you know different?

The rest of my original item is available below if you fancy a read:

Piggyback Feature Cover

Of course it’s different today isn’t it?

Interesting Links

The Independent

Railway Gazette

-oOo-

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