Rail freight on the rise
Tarmac – the UK’s leading construction solutions company – has considerably enhanced its rail freight operations, while leading the charge for a wider utilisation of rail in the transportation of construction materials
Opting to transport construction materials by rail is a trend that has noticeably picked up pace as of late. Figures have it that there has been a 43 per cent increase in rail freight activities in the last five years alone, with that figure rising to 52 per cent when taking London in isolation. Tarmac is keen to expound the benefits of transporting materials via rail, raise stakeholders’ awareness, and backs its claims with successful examples of its operation. Speaking with Railway Strategies is Chris Swan – Head of Rail at Tarmac, who discusses the development of the company’s rail activities in recent years.
“We deliver materials from large scale quarries and cement plants into large sites located in some of the country’s biggest cities and urban areas, and it is with confidence we can say that this arrangement works very well. There are obvious benefits to both Tarmac and our customers in adopting an approach that is based on rail freight. For example, it allows us to deliver large quantities of material in one go, making it a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly option,” Chris begins.
Over the last few years, Tarmac has expanded its rail capabilities and built up a reliable network. “If you take the period since 2016 only, we have rail-connected two of our quarries in North Yorkshire, which represented a significant investment that unlocked our ability to transport a variety of materials by rail, which were, up to that point, being delivered by road.
“At approximately the same time, we also set up five-year commercial partnerships with a number of rail freight operators,” Chris continues. “We have decided to allocate a specific geographical area to each operator, so they can focus on building an operational infrastructure around a particular quarry or cement plant. This has helped us grow our presence in multiple areas around the country and we are pleased that three years after this set of deals was put in place, they are yielding excellent results, enabling us to continuously provide a service of the highest quality.”
Strengthening its infrastructure further, Tarmac has opened several new facilities, including at Garston (near Liverpool), and enhanced its Battersea depot. Chris elaborates on the positives these developments have brought. “By opening the Garston site in partnership with Freightliner, we changed the means by which we move materials from the Liverpool area entirely, replacing transportation by road with rail freight.
“As for the Battersea depot, we have become the first company to install a Liebherr LH80C ‘Supergrab’ Gantry Materials Handler. It is a model that sits on top of the train, rather than operating on its side, enabling faster offloading, improved stock control and increased delivery capacity. It is precisely the sort of innovation we are incorporating into our network to make rail freight even more appealing to the construction industry.”
Close co-operation with both its freight operators and its leasing company partners has led Tarmac to introduce new wagons in the market, as well. The activity covers the replacement of old wagons with new, more modern sets, as well as the growing of the fleet’s quantity by adding extra wagons for increased capacity.
“While it is still early days, we are also working with a couple of partners on developing better IT platforms. Among these are some wagon leasing companies, Ermewa and VTG, who we are collaborating with to install the latest tracking technology on our wagons. It is crucial to understand how and when we can gain advantage from the utilisation of IT, but it is equally as important to decide on the right kind of technology that can bring real value to our work,” Chris points out.
It is an encouraging sign that there is a growing recognition from regions such as the Midlands and the North of England, of rail freight’s potential to support their regional infrastructure ambitions. Tarmac has been a staunch proponent of the narrow collaboration between regional railway bodies, which, it has been suggested, enables these organisations to focus on and deal with more specific local issues.
“We see that agencies like Midlands Connect, TfL, and Transport Scotland are willing to engage in conversations that can lead to better understanding of how we can help each other,” Chris is optimistic about the future of these business relationships. “Our job is to keep the option of rail freight before their eyes and promote the value and benefits in using rail for the delivery of major construction projects.
“If we were to have rail freight play a more central role, it would also take a bit of forethought as to how the logistics process can be arranged most effectively, in order to maximise the amount of materials that can be carried. Similarly, it is worth remembering that, sometimes, we have to join efforts with railway authorities and planning authorities in devising a concrete plan of how we can develop the potential of a rail yard. It is important to understand that we do not run the trains just for the sake of running them, but we have a very clear goal in mind that entails the efficient transportation of raw materials to a factory and supporting the delivery of a lower carbon built environment. Remembering this, we have to find a way to use rail freight’s untapped potential a lot more in the future than we do now,” he opines.
Chris also cites the ever-rising signalling costs as another persisting challenge that casts doubt on the greater availability of strategically-located rail freight sites in the coming years. “Connecting our units to the main line has become an extremely costly and time-consuming effort, which, ultimately, restricts growth in one way or another. Nevertheless, we are looking to continually make our network more efficient by running larger trains, adding new quarries and opening new depots in key towns and cities, and, generally, supporting the boom in infrastructure development.
“More and more people are relocating to the larger cities, which drives the demand for the construction of new residential and public buildings, therefore, it is vital to facilitate the delivery of materials to these sites in the most practical way possible. By actively engaging with stakeholders at all levels, we believe that rail freight provides a working solution that can offer invaluable help to future and ongoing construction programmes alike,” Chris sums up.