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UK shippers are switching from road to rail in a bid to cut emissions and increase efficiencies, despite the “challenge” in rail matching the cost of road, visitors to Multimodal heard in Birmingham yesterday.

Justin Kirkhope, project manager, logistics strategy at The Co-Operative Food, was initially skeptical about the use of rail, he said.

Three years ago the UK’s fifth largest food retailer began by sending just 10 boxes a week from its national distribution centre in Coventry, which holds slower-moving products, to Scotland, in partnership with WH Malcolm.

Timetables were a problem, especially at weekends. Instead of dispatching trucks to its then three DCs in Scotland’s central belt on a just-in-time basis, The Co-Op was now restricted to two or three services a day.

Mr Kirkhope said it was a “challenge” for rail to match the costs of road transport. Yet he has been won over. “Reliability has been better than by road. We now send 25% of product by rail on this route. We’re saving 800,000km of road miles and 500 tonnes of CO2 per year.”

Temperature control on rail containers and tracking their position had been an issue, “but we’re starting to see new technology that will make it easier,” Mr Kirkhope said.

He also admitted that integrating the special containers that The Co-Op pre-assembles to allow it to reach small, limited-access stores put demands on the rail system.

John Howell, rail development manager for WH Malcolm, said collaboration between the various players in the supply chain was essential.

“For customers, if the cost is not right, it’s not going to happen – but cost comparisons must be fair,” Howell said. He complained about “marginal costing that may be here today and gone tomorrow”.

Mr Howell added that operators must look at terminal opening hours and cut-offs to improve service levels, but there had to be commitment from the customer’s side too. “We may have to ask them to adjust picking times because they don’t now have a truck leaving every 10 minutes.”

Argos trucks used to run 70% empty from the retailer’s Kettering DC to Mossend, Scotland. All this traffic, some 3,000 containers a year, has now switched to rail, according to David Parry, strategic transport improvement manager.

The retailer imports 42,000 boxes per year into the UK, many through Southampton, and 15% of these now go by rail to the Midlands. “We would put more on rail if the trains weren’t always full,” Mr Parry commented.

Rail now accounts for 30% of UK freight movements and has the potential to increase by another 10%, said Keith Gray, commercial director of Freightliner. “But road is still the dominant mode and sets the price,” he admitted.

Meanwhile the port of Southampton has seen rail’s share of container movements increase by a third after the route to the west coast main line was cleared to accommodate the largest units – but it took too long to get the funding for this, Gray said, adding that grants are still needed to encourage further growth in intermodal transport.

Costs, he noted, were an issue. Freight services required access to the higher-speed parts of the national rail network rack, and track access charges must be kept in check to control unit cost. “I’ve never met a company that was willing to pay more to reduce emissions,” Gray said.

Shippers also noted that improvements could be made on the road. Argos has removed 200 trailers from its fleet through centralised transport planning. Changes including retro-fitting low-resistance tyres and nose cones to tractors, and a reduction in maximum speed from 52 to 50mph, are resulting in substantial savings, and Argos is now trying out fuel additives, Mr Parry said. The company was converting to curtain-siders, which were lighter and more flexible in terms of backloads, and he believed multiple steering axles had potential.

“We’ve always been a follower not a leader. We’ve learned not to be afraid of trialling things,” he said.

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