New chapter in the story of the Night Mail as freight train travel enters a new era - Phil Smart

This is the Night Mail crossing the border,Bringing the cheque and the postal order…

Phil Smart, Assistant Policy Manager, Rail Freight Group
Phil Smart, Assistant Policy Manager, Rail Freight Group

To many of us, perhaps those of a certain age, the famous poem by WH Auden evokes a nostalgic vision of the rail network in its so-called heyday before the second world war. It was used as the soundtrack for a G.P.O promotional film of 1936 describing the then Travelling Post Office (TPO) train on its journey over Beattock summit on its way into Glasgow behind a Royal Scot class engine.

Although the carriage of post by rail can be traced back to 1830, it eventually lost out to competition from road and air and, though some bulk mail continued for a while using 325 units, in 2004 the TPO itself passed into history along with steam engines and indeed, cheques and postal orders!

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Although the recent pandemic saw passenger use of the railway decline dramatically, the trend until then was of a steady increase in the use of rail to a new ‘heyday’ for both passenger and freight. We have written before about the changing nature of the freight market with construction materials and intermodal containers replacing traditional commodity traffic, mainly coal, as the advantage of volume and velocity offered by rail wins business back from road, certainly over longer distances. Most movement of freight consists of loaded wagons being pulled by heavy locomotives at speeds that, while better than road, still present challenges of accommodation in a passenger dominated timetable.

Maggie Simpson, Director General, Rail Freight Group

But the pandemic has accelerated a recent trend in the use of parcel post. As more of us stayed at home and were prevented from shopping for so-called ‘non-essential’ items, so the market saw a dramatic boom in home delivery. The small packages delivered by vans to our homes became part of the ‘new normal’. The home delivery firms are beginning to see the potential of using rail and there are several examples of warehouses being located close to the railway, poised to exploit its advantages.

The response from the rail industry has been to develop a matching product and already there are two logistics companies pioneering the new world of high-speed logistics with the first Anglo-Scottish service expected in September.

One of the by-products of early replacement of passenger trains, either because of a new franchise award or because some trains were not compliant with persons with restricted mobility (PRM) legislation, was the plentiful supply of multiple units looking for an alternative to the scrap yard and some of these have now been repurposed as demonstrators. The space created by removing the seats has created an area for roll cages can be clamped in position for the carriage of parcels and small freight consignments. They have been built to run as diesel or electric traction so can go anywhere on the network. Each 4-car unit is around 80m in length so do not need long sidings or platforms to load and unload. With the forthcoming COP26 event in Glasgow focusing everyone’s attention on the environment, their environmental credentials are a real selling point. They can demonstrate a 90% saving in carbon emissions (when in electric mode) compared with road transport making a significant contribution to climate change reduction targets. A typical journey from the midlands to Scotland, using a 12-car formation, helps to save the equivalent of 16 tonnes of CO2 emissions and take 15 trailers off the roads. Because these trains can travel at 100mph, they do not need to wait in sidings for faster trains to pass and can cover the distance between central London and central Glasgow in 5½ hours offering ‘same day’ delivery. Much faster than the ‘Night Mail’ eighty-five years ago, and much better than road where the same journey can take up to 12 hours.

Phil Smart, Assistant Policy Manager, Rail Freight Group

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