Bigger freight trains have started full operations between Southampton and the West Midlands following the completion of a multi-million pound rail upgrade, providing a welcome £374m boost for the economy and helping to keep down the cost of everyday goods in shops across Britain.
The scheme allows freight trains to move goods, including food, clothing, electronics and other consumer products, around Britain in a quicker, cheaper, greener and more practical way using the larger, modern containers preferred by many global shipping firms. It is estimated that the upgrade would also remove up to 50,000 container lorries a year from the roads, easing traffic jams and helping reduce the billions of pounds road congestion costs the economy annually.
The project involved knocking down and rebuilding 16 bridges, lowering or slewing the track in 22 places, adjusting 11 station canopies and two station platforms, and setting the track through Southampton Tunnel in concrete to create more space for the larger containers to pass through on standard freight wagons. The project has been delivered more than £11.5m under the original £71m budget, largely as a result of the innovative approach used to lower the tracks through Southampton Tunnel.
Transport minister, Theresa Villiers said: “Ensuring economic stability and growth is vital and one way to achieve this is by investing in the UK’s rail freight network. That’s why we have provided £43m of funding to upgrade this important rail link between Southampton and the West Midlands, which will enable more goods to be transported across the country faster and more efficiently.”
Robin Gisby, Network Rail’s director of operations and customer services, said: “Britain relies on rail freight, with more and more companies switching to rail and reaping the economic and environmental benefits. The upgrade of the route from Southampton to Nuneaton was vital to keep rail competitive as an efficient and cost effective way to transport goods. It will also bring the added benefits of reduced carbon emissions and traffic congestion.
“Increasingly rail freight is playing an indispensable role in everyday life. For example, it delivers goods to stock our shops and supermarkets, coal to provide electricity to power the nation and aggregates for major industries. With the added environmental, efficiency and economic benefits it brings, continued investment, such as we’ve seen here, is essential.”
The Port of Southampton is home to the UK’s second largest deep-sea container terminal and a key entry point for millions of imported products which are used by consumers and businesses across Britain. Currently around 25% of containers which are handled at Southampton are moved by rail. To increase this it was necessary to upgrade the railway to be able to carry the more modern 9′ 6″ or ‘high-cube’ containers on standard wagons, which are the most economical method for shipping goods, particularly from the Far East.
Rob Douglas, chairman of the South East England Development Agency (SEEDA), said: “Southampton is a global gateway to the economy of the South East and we are delighted our £4.9m investment, together with that of Advantage West Midlands, has helped deliver this new railway upgrade, which will help boost the economic performance of the area whilst easing congestion on the roads and reducing emissions. It will have a significant impact on the future economic success of the country and firmly place the South East on the global map of the internationally competitive rail freight industry as it opens the port to the West Midlands and beyond.”
Doug Morrison, port director, ABP Southampton, said: “In our 20 year Port master plan published last year, we stated our ambition to increase the proportion of containers carried by rail to 40%. This will reduce the number of containers that would otherwise be seen on local roads and the motorway network. The works are an essential starting point for us to achieve the 40% target and, when the container berth for mega-ships is completed in 2013, this new infrastructure will help support UK economic growth in years to come.”
Aart Hille Ris Lambers, business development manager for DP World Southampton, said: “Over the last few years we have seen the proportion of high-cube containers significantly increase with the current split at around 40%. With the gauge clearance works now complete, we can offer our customers a real choice in how they move their containers beyond the terminal gates. We expect the percentage of high cube containers to rise considerably, with associated benefits for the total supply chain and the environment.”
Sir Roy McNulty, Chair of Advantage West Midlands, said: “Today is an important milestone for the global competitiveness of the West Midlands economy. Rail Freight makes a major contribution to our economy, and the upgrade of the Southampton – Nuneaton rail freight link marks the successful completion of one of the region’s key transport priority projects. The improved connectivity to and from the region will support the increased use of rail freight for imported and exported goods, and give businesses access to wider global markets by enabling large freight containers to be transported worldwide through the Port of Southampton. The additional transport capacity will also help ease road congestion and significantly reduce CO2 emissions.”
Nigel Jones, head of planning for rail freight operator DB Schenker Rail, said: “The Government, Network Rail and other funding partners are to be congratulated on delivering the most significant upgrade to the national rail network for freight in decades. The legacy of this completed upgrade will be even more containers on the railway, faster deliveries for customers, road congestion reduced and lower carbon emissions. Everybody involved in this project deserves to be proud of that.”
Adam Cunliffe, managing director of Freightliner, commented: “We are delighted with the completion of the recent works enabling transportation of hi-cube containers on standard wagons on this key route. Investment in the rail infrastructure is key to enable us to remain competitive in our service offering, and continue to remove lorries from the UK’s already congested road network. Freightliner is pleased to offer additional daily services with increased hi-cube capacity to our customers, providing them with a reliable, efficient and environmentally friendly alternative to road.”
Evidence suggests that the poor reliability and congestion on the road network has a negative impact on productivity. This costs the economy £7-8bn every year, and the figure is estimated to rise to at least £24bn by 2025. For example, between 1997 and 2009 road traffic in Hampshire increased by 13% to 9,414 million (breakdowns for other counties available on request) vehicle miles every year.
With the mainline route now complete, Network Rail will start work later this year to upgrade 28 structures and adjusting the tracks in 14 locations on the line from Southampton to Basingstoke via Romsey, Salisbury and Andover. Eight of these structures will be public highways, the remainder will be on private roads, bridleways or footpaths. This upgrade will allow freight trains to continue transporting the larger containers on any occasions when the main line is closed, for example when rail improvement works are being carried out.