Freight Modalities (2): Rail

Rail is another form of land-based transportation. The United Kingdom and most European Union countries have extensive rail networks. In the United Kingdom, private rail freight providers offer highly competitive rates for companies moving large and heavy bulk materials, such as shipping containers, aggregates, liquids, and other high-volume, high weight loads. Material by the train-load is highly economical, provided the volume is sufficient to merit the single train-load configuration. In most cases, volume requirement is sufficient (low volumes tend to go more economically by road), hence train-load configurations are these days more common than wagon-load.

(In the wagon-load configuration, wagons carrying different loads are marshalled together by shunting to form the train. in the train-load configuration, all the wagons that comprise the train are loaded with the same material or cargo - ideally for the same customer.)

The train-load formation is typical of UK freight by rail, with only a few companies these days committed to and capable of profitably configuring wagon-load trains. The case of intermodal containers is representative. Few of the UK's rail freight operators perform intensive wagon-load operations, since wagon-load configurations require marshalling processes that incur non-value adding activities. Freightliner, for example, prefers to run trains that include empty intermodal wagons rather than shorten trains according to exact requirement. Shortening the train is regarded as an unnecessary and uneconomical operation, so is avoided. Costly marshalling is minimized. In Continental Europe, marshalling yards are more common, but still impose a profitability constraint.

With the Channel Tunnel, inward rail freight has increased. Inside the United Kingdom, shipping container movement is currently the most common type of freight moved by rail. Although the advantages of rail are considerable, the disadvantages are also acute. The following describe the advantages and disadvantages of freight by rail.

Advantages of Rail

  • Use over long distances is highly economical.
  • Wagons can carry very high-weight loads (approximately 20 tonnes per axle), making movement of heavy materials extremely cost effective.
  • Transport over long distances is relatively quick, predictable, and interruption free. Freight by rail offers more certainties in terms of delivery and collection timing than freight by road.
  • Freight by rail is far more fuel efficient, and thus, more fuel-economical, than freight by road. Diesel electric locomotives are capable of pulling hundreds of tonnes of material at relatively high speed.
  • Locomotive technology is highly robust and generally reliable.
  • Weather conditions are rarely a significant factor in train performance and planning.
  • The technology of rail and track is well understood and has proven dependable and durable.
  • Diesel-electric traction is less polluting than automotive diesel.
  • Trains can be expanded or contracted according to requirement with ease.
  • Locomotives, wagons, and maintenance services can be hired from third parties. Freight operating companies can scale up or down according to requirement. For their customers, this means the capital expense required to move goods by rail is modest.

Disadvantages of Rail

  • The cost of maintaining infrastructure, particularly the hundreds of miles of permanent way, is high. Track maintenance is extremely labour-intensive. Even though few rail freight operators own significant lengths of track, maintenance of their own track and related facility is still expensive. The cost of using the national rail network can also be high, depending on routes, time of usage, and the nature of usage (electrified or non-electrified routes, for example).
  • Train paths must be bought in advance if economies are to be maximised, but the ad hoc, just-in-time nature of demand that characterises the requirements of many rail freight customers today means that cost-effective scheduling is a challenge.
  • Large loads and high speeds result in faster wearing of wheels and track. Checking, repairing, and replacing steel track and wheels is costly.
  • Driver training is costly and the pool of qualified drivers is small. This means that driver wages are high.
  • Trains are timetabled, so are unable to operate on and as-and-when basis. This reduces the flexibility and practicality for customers who require deliveries to coincide with demand.
  • Only the larger towns and cities are adequately served by rail connections.
  • Rail terminals are large and costly operations.
  • Rail movement over short distances is rarely economically valid.
  • Much of the UK rail infrastructure is inadequate due to age.
  • The main disadvantage of rail is its intrinsic inflexibility. Beyond and before the rail terminal, trucks are required to move goods. The last mile problem for rail logistics is thus highly significant. Point-to-point collection and delivery is a rare possibility with a rail system. Rail must operate in conjunction with road, so inevitably entails the usage of at least one other modality. Modality switches incur cost and time, and introduce a potential point of failure and an extra layer of complexity that must be planned and managed.