Rail and water transport steer a course to expand alternatives for waste movement

Getting freight off the roads and on to more environmentally friendly transport options, such as rail and barges, is a key target of the Government's transport strategy. Both alternatives are being used to transport waste but there is considerable potential to carry much greater tonnages by water or rail.

Waste barges being towed up and down the Thames, taking refuse from West and central London for disposal at a riverside landfill site in Essex, provide daily evidence of the value of transporting freight by water.

The Cory Environmental fleet of tugs and barges, carrying thousands of tons of waste from the City of London and other local authorities each week, provide an environmentally friendly, and sustainable, alternative to thousands of potentially polluting refuse vehicles journeys each year through the capital’s congested streets and down river for landfill disposal.

However, this flagship “green” river freight operation is dependent on waterfront sites remaining available for the receipt and disposal of waste in the future.

The continuing and future development of water-borne freight operations requires a clear strategic lead from the Government, with the same commitment that is being made to switching freight from road to rail.

Inland waterways potential

There are some encouraging moves in this area in relation to developing freight on Britain’s inland waterways. A new Freight Study Group, announced last November by Transport Minister Lord Whitty, is examining and identifying cost-effective and practical means of encouraging increased levels of freight in the inland waterways.

The Group is looking at to reverse the long-term decline in the waterways’ role in carrying freight. Issues being assessed include: identifying what freight traffic is suitable for inland waterways; how the Freight Facilities Grant Scheme could be made more attractive to inland waterways freight projects; and how to promote the potential for more freight traffic.

In the waste sector British Waterways is evaluating the feasibility of transporting waste on the River Lee in east London. This “Waste by Water” initiative, a proposed partnership between British Waterways, local authorities and private waste management businesses, would use the river to carry waste in 12-tonne sealed containers on a specially-converted barge to Londonwaste’s energy-from-waste incineration plant at Edmonton. The initiative, if it gets the go-ahead, could save up to 45,000 lorry journeys a year.

Despite the setbacks to the cause of rail transport that have emanated from the fall-out from the Hatfield accident, in the longer term the Government’s still aims to see a significant move of freight from road to rail.

The Strategic Rail Authority (SRA), recently confirmed in its formal role after a its initial “shadow” status, sees the transport of freight by rail as one of its main development aims in “building a better railway.”

Rail freight option

The SRA states: “The successful conversion of freight from road to rail brings together a network of commercial and operational relationships which have to work together for common objectives. The key commercial players are Railtrack and the freight operating companies, supported and enabled by several Agencies and organisations such as freight interchange and logistics companies.” Part of the SRA’s role is to promote and facilitate this network of relationships to enable rail freight to provide the trunk leg of the logistics supply chain.

The SRA, which is currently developing a strategy for the railway industry, dealing with freight, states: “It is recognised that the transfer of freight from road to rail delivers environmental and other public interest benefits that are not captured in cash by the providers. In particular, rail freight offers substantial safety benefits in terms of reduced accidents, emissions savings, particularly CO2 because of its relative energy efficiency, and benefits in reducing congestion.

The freight sector of the railways differs significantly from the passenger in that this business is dominated by English Welsh and Scottish Railway (EWS), which acquired five of the six former BR freight activities. The sixth business, Freightliner, went to a management buy-out team backed by venture capitalists.

The SRA points out that the freight business, unlike the passenger business where there is widespread moderation of competition, operates in an “open access” environment whereby any operator can run freight trains, subject to obtaining a safety case, licence and access to the railway from Railtrack.

The SRA also reports: “The first indications of growing competition within the sector are beginning to show with Freightliner starting to capture contracts in the traditional bulk sector, EWS making moves into the maritime market and new operators, such as GB Railfreight and Mendip Rail, entering the market.”

Since privatisation there has been substantial growth in the amount freight on rail, turning around four decades of continuous decline. EWS has invested heavily in locomotives, wagons and an operational control centre, the SRA states.

Waste rail tonnages

For EWS this investment certainly seems to have paid off in terms of transporting waste by rail. The company told LAWE that it is currently moving 1.5 million tonnes of waste a year. Its customers cover both local authorities and private sector waste management companies.

They are:

  • Avon County Council (Westerleigh, Bath and Bristol to Calvert {north of Aylesbury})
  • West London Waste (Northolt {near South Ruislip} and Brentford to Calvert
  • Shanks Waste Solutions (Cricklewood {North London} to Forders {near Stewartby})
  • Greater Manchester Waste (Northenden {near Manchester ({to Roxby {near Scunthorpe})
  • Edinburgh District Council (Powderhall to Dunbar)

    A key element in the continuing expansion of moving waste by rail is the provision of rail access in new waste transfer facilities and investment by waste disposal operators in the equipment needed to load and transfer the containers which are generally used in the rail transport of waste.

    There is also considerable scope for the transport by rail of recyclable materials from collection agencies to reprocessors.

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