Operators on track to continue sleeper service – Martin Bignell

Through the constitutional, political and economic turbulence of September and October 2022, it has sometimes felt like the world has strayed from its reassuringly familiar axis, even if some aspects of it do not match your personal outlook. But thanks to this, rail freight continued to transport goods to and from Scotland.

Rail freight operator, DB Cargo, has a locomotive delivered with the words ‘I am the backbone of the economy’ and that’s how the sector has sailed into continued services thanks to strike actions at the within Network Rail and in some ports. A considerable contingency planning effort between the infrastructure provider, freight operating companies and their customers has prioritized freight which must continue to run and move trains beyond closed lines.

It is this demonstrable proactivity that continues to give freight customers the confidence to continue to transition from road to rail freight. Over 70% of all Scottish rail freight crosses the border to and from UK ports and distribution centres.

The impact and success of these streams is recognized throughout our industry. At Rail Freight Group’s own awards, the partnership between Direct Rail Services and Tesco to establish the supermarket’s first refrigerated rail service between Tilbury and Coatbridge has won our Driving Rail Freight Growth award, noting that the reliable transport of refrigerated goods in large quantities is a step change for rail and that the importance of removing more than 17,000 containers per year from the road will help induce the whole chilled food market to increase its use of rail freight. Shortly after, the National Rail Awards also chose to honor the service with their Freight and Logistics Achievement of the Year award.

Sleeping car service has always been provided through a partnership between the concessionaire and the rail freight company. Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

Yet, to win a prize but no less important, another daily service has started for the large logistics operator Stobart, which is now part of the large retail distribution company, Culina Group. It also innovates with the use of containers that can be loaded from the side, like a road trailer. In doing so, rail-enabled units are integrated into existing supply chains that have warehouses, distribution centers and manufacturing facilities set up for road transport. Simplifying integration has enabled a daily connection for retail goods between the logistically important hubs of Doncaster and Bellshill.

A ‘freight’ service making recent headlines in Scotland is unusual. The overnight and iconic Caledonian Sleeper is a service provided operationally by GB Railfreight, which owns and operates the locomotives and provides contracted drivers to the franchise holder.

The franchise is to be canceled on value-for-money grounds, although the minister acknowledged the franchise holder had “largely” done a good job of improving it. An odd understatement, as it has been completely transformed for the better since its extraction from the Scotrail passenger franchise, where it had remained for years as an unloved and underinvested operational inconvenience.

The sleeper has always been delivered as part of a partnership between the concessionaire and the rail freight company. Locomotive traction is specialized to provide the high power of unique facilities built into sleeping cars and couchette services are exposed to night-time engineering work, requiring diversions that freight operators accustomed to long distances and night workers are better equipped to plan and manage while reaching final destinations on time.

Even if the sleeper is nationalized, it will be difficult to improve the price-performance ratio. It has high fixed staff and operating costs, and revenue is capped by the number of paying guests it can carry; lengthening the train, adding more services or increasing the number of beds is not easy.

This is an unusual ‘freight’ service and private freight operating companies will most likely continue to play a key supporting role in its delivery. Another example of the industry’s ability to tailor services to a wide range of customer needs.

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