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GB Railfreight is set to launch its eighth daily intermodal service out of Felixstowe next week.
Although its destination and key customer remain unannounced, John Smith, GB Railfreight managing director, said Network Rail, the UK’s rail infrastructure provider, needed to continue investing in the network to allow greater numbers of intermodal container trains to operator out of the UK’s largest box port.
“If we don’t have two tracks on the Felixstowe line by the time I retire, I will be mortified.
“When we first started serving Felixstowe there were 13 trains a day, and there was plenty of capacity on both the network and at the terminal – in those days there was capacity to exploit; it is not the case now,” he said.
The addition of the new GB Railfreight service will take the number of services out of Felixstowe up to 33 a day. At the end of May, Freightliner launched the 32nd, running to Rotherham and Doncaster, and Mr Smith added that there ought to be room for plenty more.
“Felixstowe is able to handle 50 trains a day through its terminal, which means there are another 17 it could take. Rail is carrying around 25% of the volume out of the port, so if we could add another 10 trains a day that would see rail’s modal share go up to around 35%,” he said, adding that it would not be the first time that rail operators had superseded capacity predictions.
“The original model was for 28 trains a day but we have already proved that we can do 33.”
While he said that rail freight operators were affected by the huge exchanges of containers from the arrival of ultra-large container vessels, there had been benefits: “What we seeing is that the forwarders are also facing the same congestion and cannot get the trucks to take these containers out, so they are turning to us.
“For one customer we rail the containers to Rotherham; the customer is haulier and prefers to pick them up there rather than at Felixstowe, because they get much better utilisation of their trucks.”
However, he emphasised that while Felixstowe had invested significantly in its rail facilities, it would need to matched elsewhere. One example was the lack of planning that left Southampton without adequate provision for rail freight, despite the hugely expensive gauge clearance project that allowed hi-cube containers to be railed out of its container terminal.
“The trouble was that when they did that project, there was no commensurate investment in the rail terminals in Southampton, and so it has proved very difficult to operate rail services from there. It is one of the biggest regrets of the industry.”
In the wake of the Brexit vote and the non-related collapse of the UK coal market, Mr Smith said GB Railfreight – primarily a bulk commodity transporter – has had to diversify its business.
The company recently operated its first car trains, taking Honda vehicles from Swindon to its European logistics centre at the Belgian hub of Ghent.
He said: “It is a 10-train contract, which is clearly based on the movement of free-rated traffic within the EU. Although UK-made cars may become cheaper to sell abroad due to the declining value of sterling, this could well be offset by new tariffs and customs duties.”
The company, which is owned by Eurotunnel, is also considering investing outside the UK.
“Freightliner has moved abroad and done very well, and we probably need to diversify as well,” he said. “There is a huge scope for diversifying as a UK operator – Freightliner and DB Cargo UK are probably the most efficient rail operators in the world and there is a lot we can offer other markets.”