Rail upgrade aims to switch 50,000 freight containers from road to rail

The first stages of a complex two-year project which aims to transfer up to 50,000 container freight journeys a year from the UK’s roads to the railway have started. Network Rail, which is delivering the £71m scheme, is carrying out work at almost 50 sites between Southampton and Nuneaton to enable the larger, modern containers preferred by many global shipping firms to be transported efficiently by train across the whole of Great Britain.

Associated British Ports’ (ABP) Port of Southampton is home to the UK’s second largest deep-sea container terminal, DP World Southampton. The port is the key entry point for a wide range of food, electronics, petroleum, metals and aggregate products. Currently around 25% of containers which are handled at Southampton are moved by rail. To increase this it will be necessary for the railway to be able to carry the more modern 9’ 6” or ‘high-cube’ containers, which are the most economical method for shipping goods, particularly from the Far East.

Richard O’Brien, Network Rail’s route director for Wessex, said: “It is important that rail remains an efficient and cost-effective way of transporting freight. The upgrade of the route from Southampton to Nuneaton is vital in achieving this. In addition, it will help meet the government’s objectives to ease traffic congestion and reduce carbon emissions by transferring freight from road to rail.”

Rail is one of the most environmentally friendly forms of transport. Road freight generates six times more carbon dioxide than rail freight for each tonne moved, so the greater transfer of freight from road to rail as a result of this scheme will lead to a significant reduction of carbon emissions.

Transport minister Sadiq Khan said: “The freight industry makes a valuable contribution to our economy and this work will make us better competitors in the global marketplace, while reducing road congestion and carbon emissions along the way. Rail can be a cheaper, quicker, greener and a more practical way for businesses to transport their goods across the country and beyond.

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“The government is investing £350 million in rail freight infrastructure - the most significant funding for many years - and this project is a key step towards the development of a strategic freight network in this country.”

The route will take freight trains from Southampton to the West Coast Main Line near Nuneaton, via Winchester, Basingstoke, Didcot, Oxford, Banbury, Leamington Spa and Warwick. Improvement works are being planned along this route to structures which are not currently large enough for the high-cube containers to pass through. These are scheduled to be carried out over the next two years.

Mr O’Brien continued: “The UK rail network was largely constructed in Victorian times, so was designed to take trains that were smaller in height and width. For trains to carry larger loads, such as high-cube containers, we need to make sure there is enough clearance around the track so the trains can pass through bridges, tunnels or station canopies safely without hitting them.

The improvement works will be planned to minimise disruption to passenger and freight rail services, as well as the communities where the works will be taking place. Network Rail will share full details about the specific elements of the programme as soon as the plans are finalised.

Lee Amor, executive director of development and infrastructure, SEEDA, said: “This investment, which has secured funding from both ourselves and the EU, will help to maintain the region’s global competitiveness and economic performance while significantly reducing its carbon footprint.”