Rail 768: The mystery of the freight railway that never happened

Infrastructure planning is an imperfect business and the railways are a clear illustration of that. Indeed, one feature of Britain’s railways is that they were never planned out in a systematic way but, rather, came about as a result of raw capitalist enterprise mitigated, only slightly, by Parliamentary considerations.

I muse about this because I have never quite understood why successive proposals for a major freight railway across Britain have never come to fruition. Older readers will remember that I wrote several articles in the 90s and early 00s. In Rail 408 (May 2001, but available on my website), my column covered the revamped proposal to build a freight line through the heart of London.

The original Central Railway proposal for a line that would run through the spine of England to the Channel Tunnel came to Parliament in 1996. It was probably too near a general election (which took place the following year but might have been sooner as there was only a small Tory majority) and was voted down by MPs with barely a handful supporting the plan. The boss of Central, Andrew Gritten, told me at the time that it had all been a stitch up because the Tories, including then prime minister John Major, privately had supported the idea but then panicked at the last moment because there was a plan to pop up out of a tunnel in Croydon, which would have caused much demolition, and withdrew their support. The proposers were then left to look really stupid for having put forward an idea that had virtually no support.

Five years later, therefore, my article considered whether the scheme could be revived. The original plan had changed somewhat and now was to be a 400 mile railway linking Liverpool and Lille and like the original proposal was intended to operate flat wagons that could be used by lorry trailers, rather than being aimed at containers. This time part of the route went through Surrey which, as I opined at the time, would not be a popular idea in that leafy Tory country where there are more golf clubs than pubs (I exaggerate but only a tad).

I sounded vaguely optimistic at the time about the proposed £6bn scheme as it was intended to be entirely funded by the private sector, and other schemes to bring private money into the industry, such as Alistair Morton’s Special Purpose Vehicles, had foundered. All I suggested at the time was that the idea should at least get a hearing from ‘the government, the Strategic Rail Authority and the media’…

To no avail. The scheme meandered on for a bit but was then quietly forgotten. Well, not entirely as Kelvin Hopkins, the Luton MP, one of the real supporters of the industry in Parliament, has tried to keep the flame alive with a scheme now called GB Freight Route. The plan would be for a line that links HS1, at Barking with Birmingham, Sheffield, Manchester (via the Woodhead tunnel being reopened) Carlisle and Glasgow. The line would be built to the Continental Gauge able to accommodate full sized lorry trailers and European wagons and its main purpose would be for continental traffic to man points in Europe. The route would make use of some of the old Great Central alignment and consequently Hopkins reckons that only 14 miles of new track would be required, nine miles of which would be in tunnels. According to a survey carried out privately by a major consulting engineer, the cost of the railway could be as little as £3bn though Hopkins says he has ‘doubled that to make it seem more credible’. The estimate is that some five million lorry loads of freight could be taken off the roads annually and that the railway would comfortably cover both its construction and operating costs over time.

Hopkins is bemused that this scheme has never been picked up in any serious way by government or any rail companies. He says he has proposed the plan to a wide variety of people including ministers, influential MPs, engineering companies and other interested parties over the years and reckons there is a depressing pattern: ‘At first they love the idea. They say things like “this is a no-brainer, why has it not happened before. Or “what is there not to like in a scheme that will take thousands of lorry journeys off the road”’ But then, he says, interest wanes: ‘They go off to discuss it with their colleague and then my phone calls are not returned, and the idea seems to fall by the wayside. There has been more solid support from a few people, notably Eurotunnel which would obviously benefit greatly. Indeed, Jacques Gounon the chief executive of Eurotunnel has been pressing the UK government to look at a spinal freight route linked to the Tunnel. Hopkins says that the major supermarkets are eager to show their green credentials by making more use of rail but find there simply isn’t the capacity available on the existing network and have enthusiastically embraced the concept, as have road hauliers like Stobart’s.

Hopkins feels that the main reason people lose interest is because they fear it would make the case for HS2 less viable. Hopkins is, indeed, a sceptic about HS2 concerned that it will not free up many routes for freight as promised – because many towns will not be served by HS2 – and that it is something of a white elephant. However, he stresses that the two are not incompatible as their routes, except for a few miles, are separate and could even complement each other.

The only serious support has come from the controversial – but train and cycle loving – Telegraph journalist Andrew Gilligan who is fervently anti HS2 but has supported the idea of the freight railway in several articles. Indeed, he has suggested that the Labour front bench should take a good look at the scheme. He has a point

It is difficult to understand why this type of scheme has not been properly examined over the years. Taking freight off the roads is one of the most electorally popular policies that a government could carry out. Go on the doorstep and start talking railways, and that is what many people, who might never set foot on a train themselves, would suggest. Yet in two decades the scheme has never even been properly assessed. It might be completely ludicrous or impossible (but then there are those who say that HS2 is). It would certainly be cheaper than HS2 even if much new railway were needed because it does not have to go into towns where laying track is obviously expensive.

I suspect the notion that it could be entirely privately funded is optimistic but nevertheless given that, without much discussion or proper assessment, some £50bn is being spent on HS2, spending a few million on a thorough investigation of the freight scheme would seem sensible, to put it mildly. Perhaps readers can enlighten me as to why it has not happened because having investigated and written about the idea half a dozen times over the years, I, like Hopkins, have no coherent explanation for the failure to develop the idea.

Competition madness


I am no fan of franchising as I am sure most readers know. I was also adamantly opposed to the rapid reprivatisation of the East Coast route because it was carried out for purely political and, indeed, almost vindictive reasons. Here was a perfectly well-functioning operation that was to be disrupted, again, just because it was a successful public sector business that made ministers insistence that franchising is the only game in town look foolish.

Now however, there is talk that the reletting may be delayed because there are concerns about competition on sections of the line. The Competition and Markets Authority (the old Competition Commission) is now looking at the fact that services between Peterborough and Grantham and between Peterborough and Lincoln compete with East Midlands Trains services operated by Stagecoach.

I would be the first one to laugh out loud if the franchise were stopped in its tracks but it must be said this is a ludicrous intervention. These are not major routes and in any case most passengers on the railway do not have the opportunity to choose different operators. It is, at most, a marginal issue in the industry and certainly not worth making a fuss about it. Why do these jobworths go for industries where competition – or lack of it – really is a major issue and, crucially, can be remedied, rather than busying themselves with an industry that is a natural monopoly.


  • Paul Bigland

    I think there’s one very obvious reason why this idea has been a non-starter. None of the people who’ve proposed such schemes have ever come up with a credible business plan. The profit margins on railfreight are tiny – around 5% How on earth does anyone think adding in the fixed costs of a dedicated freight network will improve this?

    As for eschewing intermodal traffic for road railers – that’s just madness. Depite a number of attempts, how many road-railers operate in the UK? None. The expensive wagons rust in sidings. In contrast, intermodal traffic has grown & continues to grow.

    As for reusing the Great Central – that’s equally daft. Much of it has disappeared. Especially in cities like Leicester & Nottingham. Oh, and there’s the small matter of the fact the section that’s still in use South of Aylesbury has little spare capacity.

    The fact of the matter is, when it comes to freight, Hs2 is our best bet. It transfers long-distance intercity services to a new line which can pay its way – leaving capacity on existing lines for freight, where they can share costs with other services and have a chance of being profitable.

  • Plusqueparfait

    Central Railway did in fact have a solid business case based essentially on the traffic which the new line would receive. The GCR main line was our ready-made HS2, built to Berne gauge and serving the industrial heart of this country. The reason Central Railway’s plan failed was a mixture of nimbyism and short-termism at a time when rail transport was seen more as a problem than a solution. The Borders Railway had disappeared as well but that has not proved an obstacle to its reinstatement. As for lack of capacity south of Aylesbury, sections of track are criminally underused, most notably the NNML, whereas other sections have been singled.

    HS2 is not the best bet. Far from it. It is a passenger-only line which will not even serve the places it is supposed to. Why go to Totton when you can get straight to Nottingham on the MML? Why travel from Birmingham to Paris by train when you have to lug your bags down the Euston Road to change stations in London? Displacement of services from other routes is hardly welcome for those who rely on local stopping services. The best bet would have been to upgrade our existing routes and reinstate missing strategic links such as March/Spalding, Bedford/Cambridge and Rugby/Quainton Road.

  • Keith

    Agree entirely.
    What’s so sad is that we spend millions sending near empty passenger trains around the network at off peak times. Meanwhile freight operators are desperate for paths. Far too many routes have 2,3 or even 4 trains an hour off-peak. In other countries you would get an hourly service. Wherever there is potential freight usage, surely one hourly path should be sacrificed.

  • WNXX Refugee

    What a surprise, as soon as HS2 is mentioned, Paul Bigland appears from nowhere and tells us the network’s impossibly congested and HS2 is our only hope. Presumably the WNXX Forum’s “Snapper” will be advocating the abolition of the House of Lords now that they’ve said HS2 is largely a waste of time?

  • Paul Holt

    There is the related matter of the relief and diversionary routes taken away by Beeching.

    Read this: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2889581/This-rail-fiasco-solution-s-staring-face-MICHAEL-WILLIAMS-believes-reopening-disused-lines-answer.html

    Does CW agree with this? If yes, what is he doing about it? If not, why not?

  • nobby

    As a haulier I get fed up with the public … People are snobs to how there goods are moved nothing to do with the environment, they just don’t like lorries fact !..lorries and its origins the horse & cart have haul goods by road for years and will still haul goods for years , I love rail for big loads as it makes sense ,but its the same freight its always done ? Nothings changed with rail ? Plus British rail was one of the biggest lorry operators in the UK at one point which says a lot !! Lorries /horse &carts etc have always provided the door to door or farm to producer or multi drop service a train would never do ! We are only a island that’s why freight by rail would never exceeded what its doing now ! You would need more lorries to cope with more rail freight.. Eg you need lorries collecting goods and loading the train at point A and lorries unloading at point B then delivering goods and collecting goods to reload train at point B to return ? Like British railway use too .. What’s the point ? Just send the lorries direct ! Like we do now and always have done ,, the UK not big enough for rail freight ? Rails brilliant for the containers from the ship to Birmingham but they still travel by 44tonner artic to its last point then reloaded and took back to the train by 44 tonner artic and some nearly deliver the containers back towards the dock !which makes no sense ! As a haulier who’s family run since horse and cart nothings changed in freight movement !! Rail does its thing and lorries do there thing ? We get on and we work well together its the public who are snobs who just dont like seeing there goods on the road so think we lorries should be banishisd out of sight ..I loved hauling off the fertilizer train at avonmouth and delivering to farms the que of lorries is very long ,,, in the coal days my grandad had ques off horse and carts then his lorries loading by hand ! Of the rail wagons,,, like I said lorries do there thing and rail does there’s ,, just stop mounning about lorries it gets boring, if lorries stopped for a week the country would collapse,, fact,,, sort car traffic and public rail out ! As the human is a walking goods and needs many means of transport where as 25 tonne of animal feed to a farm in mid wales uses one mode transport a lorry. Sorry to rant also I’m not good with competer..thanks

  • dave

    Also I noticed its European lorries /trailers not your British brothers in freight lorries your helping,, thanks ! So aswell as compition to British haulage your saving them diesel by piggy backing them by rail from the docks so they can spend a week doing loads on the cheap in the UK undercutting your UK hauliers thanks !, and weres all this freight to fill trains coming from ? Why send a massive train to an area that two attics might go to twice a day ? I love it when rail say trains have took 66 lorry journeys off the road ??? What 66 lorries ? In all my life I’ve never known a haulier lose work to rail like that ?? And if the train broke down who the hell operator would have a spare 66 lorries at a drop of a hat to help ?? Just spin ? They always say we’ve took such and such lorries off the road ?? Who’s lorries ? It just adds to another movement of goods !.. I love seeing the freight on trains knowing there’s work for lorries at the end point yet you try telling the public … If you want to move house you hire a lorry you don’t get a train pull up outside same allies any goods ,more goods are suited for road … Love freight trains and love lorries just hate the nosance spoke..sort public trains out and leave mounning about trucks..

  • Samd

    I was googling this proposal and came across this, I remember reading about this at the time it came out and was very disappointed it never came to be. Assuming the Woodhead route would have been for 160 kph speeds I think that would have fitted in well with TPE/HS3 services, assuming HS3 ends up being a new Trans-Pennine link. It would just need a branch added towards Leeds as the HSUK website proposed. And perhaps instead of a route past Heathrow Sir Norman Foster’s Thames Hub idea could have had the outer London orbital line taken from it and use that to get around London to the channel tunnel. Between HS2, HS3, GCR/Midland Main Line rebuild and maybe the London-Southampton double decker train clearances we could have ended up with a decent “European gauge” network.