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High speed urban freight logistics by rail

Derby, UK-based Rail Operations Group will operate the "Orion" freight service between London Gateway Logistics Park and Liverpool Street rail terminus, in the heart of the city, using converted passenger trains

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High speed urban freight logistics by rail

The case for using the passenger train network to move fast-moving consumer goods in off-peak hours has been made before, and it is getting all the more compelling. On the one hand, the inexorable rise of e-commerce and online shopping is putting pressure on distribution resources. On the other hand, trucking is becoming increasingly problematic in urban environments, due to congestion, low emissions zones, driver shortages – all leading to rising costs and supply chain inefficiencies.


HGVs that do not meet London’s ULEZ limits have to pay £200 per round trip and in 2021 the the ULEZ is being extended to cover the whole area between the North Circular and South Circular trunk roads. Furthermore, from 2020 trucks that do not meet new driver visibility criteria will be banned from London’s roads, as part of a safer cycling push.


For many shippers of FMCG and their LSPs, the way round these problems is to exploit the existing passenger rail net in off-peak hours, where there are slots available on the network.


Starting in May next year, Rail Operations Group (ROG) will offer an alternative to the congested A13 highway with a new pilot service linking London Gateway Logistics Park, which is rail-served, and Liverpool Street station, where there are train platforms at grade with road access.


To operate the new service, being marketed as Orion, ROG will deploy two Class 769 electro-diesel Flex units produced from refurbished Class 319 electric units. The Flex concept is proving popular with passenger TOCs as it allows them to replace older diesel units with bi-modes, lowering operating costs on electrified routes and non-electrified routes, such as the line into London Gateway. The picture above is from the conversion workshop, for a passenger TOC.


ROG’s freight train sets will comprise four converted cars. Seats, partitions, toilets and so on are being removed and the windows are being plated over. Access remains via the electric sliding doors, while the floors and sides are being fitted with anchor points. For the purposes of the trial, each car will be kitted out differently to cater for the widest possible number of loading units - pallets, wheeled and unwheeled containers, roller cages, totes, shelving units, etc. This will provide the opportunity for customer feedback on preferences.

A converted Class 769 Flex train, albeit in passenger train configuration. (Photo: ROG)
A converted Class 769 Flex train, albeit in passenger train configuration. (Photo: ROG)

"Network Rail has been very supportive and we are getting strong interest from the market; some prospective customers are new to rail," ROG’s Production Director Paul Orchard told WorldCargo News. No launch customers have been named, but they are understood to include "household names."


"We are hoping to build the service to two and possibly three roundtrips a day, seven days a week. There is capacity for this at Liverpool Street, and when the Elizabeth Line [Crossrail] opens there will be more, as many suburban services will be running below ground," Mr Orchard continued.


"Main line termini are located in city centres, so ’last mile’ services can be provided by e-vans or cargo bikes, while our bi-mode capability means we can service any rail siding and divert off electrified routes if there are power supply problems."


Looking ahead, ROG has been getting enquiries for services between Thameside and the Central Belt in Scotland. "We estimate that we could cover this in around 5h 30 mins, compared to 11-12 for trucks," said Mr Orchard. "That means, for example, that the cut-off time for parcels freight with guaranteed next day delivery can be extended from 20.00h to 23.00h, a tremendous benefit. And don’t forget, because we can run our trains at normal passenger train speeds of up to 100 mph [160 kph], we have the same priority as passenger trains."


Cargo weight is not an issue with the converted rolling stock. As with FMCG trucking, the issue is cube. ROG’s Head of International Services, Mark Keighley, explains that each converted carriage is equivalent to slightly more than one HGV, so a 4-car train would have the capacity of 4-5 HGVs, "It varies to some extent, depending on what is being carried and how it is loaded," he said.


Mr Keighley added that ROG already holds both passenger and freight rail operating licenses.


ROG started up in 2015 to serve the needs of train manufacturers and ROSCOs. Its business is increasing as passenger TOCs are having to invest in new vehicles - up to 7,000 may be needed between now and 2023 - and this in turn results in cascading of older equipment that is not time-expired. There are various options. It can be sold abroad, scrapped, or recycled into other use - the obvious end-use in this case being freight.


Hence there is no problem on the supply side as far as suitable rolling stock is concerned. With last mile deliveries by vans or bikes, heavy trucks are taken entirely out of the equation. Leading shippers and 3PLs say they are fighting hard to reduce their carbon footprint. This is a golden opportunity.


Obviously, the London Gateway service to Liverpool street and the potential "Thameside " service to Scotland suggest import cargo moved over DP World London Gateway, but purely domestic, inter-city freight also offers clear market potential. This is already being exploited by pioneering operators such as InterCity RailFreight (formerly 5PL) and WEGO Couriers working with different passenger TOCs.

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