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Photo credit: ketmonkey via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Photo credit: ketmonkey via Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Transport Select Committee member and Stoke-on-Trent South MP, Rob Flello, has backed a scheme to help reduce pollution and congestion by putting high-value, time-sensitive freight onto passenger trains.

“In these days where autonomous trains and retinal scans to track passengers are seen as glimpses of the future of rail, it’s important to remember old ideas are not necessarily bad ideas,” said the MP, who is also chair of the All Party Parliamentary Freight Transport Group.

“I’ve recently been talking to people from a company called InterCity RailFreight who are taking a concept which would be completely familiar to the Victorian rail passenger and turning it into a serious prospect for moving freight by rail and cutting road congestion.”

InterCity RailFreight began trials of the scheme in 2010 and has now become a partner with two rail franchisees, GWR and East Midlands Trains, moving fresh fish and medical test samples by rail on passenger services.

These two types of cargo might seem rather disparate, but they have one thing in common: an urgent need to find the quickest route to their destinations.

The medical samples are moving from Leicester and Derby as part of clinical drug trials, and as such need to reach the London labs where they are examined as speedily as possible.

The fish – mackerel in particular – is coming fresh off the boat in Cornwall to be distributed to various click-and-collect points in London, ready to be cooked the same day it was hauled from the waves.

In each case, the trial suggested the time and cost savings are significant when compared to road transport. It said the process is cheaper than using a diesel delivery van, up to 300 per cent faster and causes no more pollution than the passenger train carrying them would have created anyway.

The way the scheme currently works is by using space on empty carriages, with packages in the aisles or on the seats. However, a Cambridgeshire company, 42 Technology, has designed a fully adaptable passenger carriage where the seats slide away to make an open space for freight to be carried.

The company estimates adoption of its technology could raise £100 million pounds in extra freight profits for the rail networks.

“We have a situation today where billions of pounds are being spent on HS2 with no intention whatsoever of using it for freight,” Flello said. “Surely the project would be the perfect vehicle for these mixed trains where the time advantage of the new line would be highly attractive to businesses shipping the ultimate in perishable goods?”

Research consultants Arup produced a report last year on the movement of freight on passenger trains, looking at a number of schemes including the one run by InterCity RailFreight. It said achievements included environmental benefits; better safety and security of passengers and goods; journey times are faster than road; it is possible to load/unload without impacting on reliability of passenger services at terminals and intermediate stations; and passenger services are not detrimentally impacted.

It also said there was potential to integrate with city urban consolidation centres; potential to integrate with emission-free or low-emission last-mile delivery; and potential to integrate with click-and-collect and lockers at stations.

“There’s no doubt this use of existing capacity to carry freight on passenger services is a no-brainer,” Flello said. “It’s efficient for the person needing goods moved, it adds value to services for the rail operators and it benefits the public by cutting out polluting and congesting road journeys.

“I know InterCity RailFreight has been talking to the minister, Paul Maynard, and I would encourage him to find a way to get this a bit further towards the top of his in-tray for further action. As I understand it, the biggest problem the people behind the scheme have had is getting the attention of the other franchises. I think GWR and East Midlands deserve genuine credit for running with the idea and I wish some of their fellow franchise holders could be as imaginative.

“The minister could get them all round a table together. If he did that, once they knew what was on offer, I’m sure they would all be keen to be involved,” he concluded.