Ed Burkhardt, who bought the bulk of British Rail's freight business, famously characterised Freightliner as having the ‘wit without the kit'. This should have rung warning bells throughout Burkhardt's EWS because, while wit is in short supply, if you can show the Rolling Stock Companies that you have the wherewithal to pay their rental charges they will lease you all the kit you need.
As proposed, privatisation of freight would have seen three geographically based train-load freight companies competing into each other's territories. As the only credible bidder Ed soon stamped on that. In his view, rail-on-rail competition would be bad for the industry.
Rival rail freight operators in cut-throat competition would, he believed, bleed the industry dry as rates fell. Thus weakened, rail freight would be easy prey for the real competition – the road hauliers.
But when it came to infrastructure works trains, EWS was the monopoly supplier to Railtrack, the monopoly customer. And the monopsony became increasingly unhappy with the quality of service it was getting.
For Robin Gisby, Railtrack's then Head of Freight, the only sure way to improve quality of service was to introduce competition. And, thanks to the Rolling Stock Companies, he had a means of doing this.
All Railtrack had to do was acquire its own wagons and offer other companies contracts to haul its works trains. These contracts would provided the secure cash-flow against which a ROSCO would buy traction to lease to the new entrants. With the cheap and cheerful Class 66 representing residual value on wheels, rentals would be competitive.
Freightliner Heavy Haul signed an eight year contract with Railtrack in July 1999, followed by GB Railfreight nine months later. And competition was unleashed across the whole freight market – not just infrastructure works trains. .
Works train haulage is very ‘peaky', with most work at weekends. Thus while the Railtrack contracts underwrote the rentals, the new operators had to keep their traction earning throughout the week.
Freightliner Heavy Haul (FHH) promptly applied its commercial wit to the new kit. Since Freightliner dominated the intermodal business, the logical move was to enter the core market of the freight railway – commercial heavy haul.
Its strategy was focused on efficiency and quality of service in a market where track access charges, traction and rolling stock rentals and staff costs were virtually fixed. Easily said, of course, and promised in most business plans.
While FHH now has several commodity flows, including cement, oil and cars, this article focuses on the company's coal business where FHH estimates that in under four years it has won 25% of the rail haulage market from a standing start. Managing Director Adam Cunliffe, who was General Manager Finance & Commercial in those early days describes the first coal deals with Enron and TXU Energi as ‘virtual contracts'.
That's virtual as in no drivers, no locomotives and no wagons. Indeed, when he joined Freightliner in August 1999 he spent his first afternoon with the lawyers negotiating the lease for the first seven locomotives.
In Freightliner-speak the FHH unique selling point is COMAS – Committed Assets. This dedicates traction, rolling stock and drivers to specific customer flows. For me, the key decision was to give drivers complete responsibility for their trains.
British Rail was never able to accept that its drivers were intelligent men and women, able to cover a much wider range of tasks that booking on and off, driving trains and taking PNBs in between. Some old hands now blame the Unions for this blinkered attitude: I can't agree.
Today, HH drivers, are responsible for dealing with the customers at each end of the journey. For example, when I rode an Immingham-Ferrybridge coal train in April, as I climbed into the cab of the 66, there, clipped to the central windscreen pillar, was the printed-out loading manifest
Flow No 91662
‘Ingenious' (a misprint for igneous I suspect0
South African coal
Koorn Fontein Grade
Driver Rick Hasnik had brought his train to Humber International Terminal (HIT) at 10.30, monitored the loading of 1,150tonnes of coal and, as I joined him just after noon , would now be Freightliner's contact with the coal controller at the destination power station. On the control console was the key tool of the FHH driver's trade – a mobile phone programmed with the numbers of customers, FHH control and operations staff plus other drivers.
This approach was pioneered on the FHH Lafarge/Blue Circle cement flows into Manchester . Talking to Larfarge a few months back about their rail haulage they were impressed by the performance on the ground – and have now made FHH their exclusive haulier. FHH make drivers part of their teams at performance meetings with customers.
On the HIT-Ferrybridge run, contact with the customer is by exception. The phone is used only if there is a problem. Even so, by old style freight standards, the definition of ‘problem' is pretty tight. ‘Ten minutes late or early I don't bother to get in touch', according to Driver Resnik.
COMAS, explains Adam Cunliffe, is based on diagramming flows round locomotives and wagon sets rather than driver's rosters. With the emphasis on keeping the trains rolling, drivers change over at stations or the trackside, rather than in yards, which FHH doesn't have. Drivers also do their own shunting.
As a result, on the major coal flow between Scotland and the Yorkshire power stations, a loco plus a set of wagons will do the round trip in 24 hours. One driver takes the train from the Ayrshire open cast mines to Tees for hand-over to a Ferrybridge driver. With these services currently running at 10-15 trains a week, depending on demand, the savings in costs per tonne compared with 2-3 round trips a week is significant.
Note that while Network Rail provides the wagons for the works trains, FHH leases the coal hoppers as part of its COMAS policy. It now has 22 locomotives plus 350 of the Polish-built wagons formed in 17 car sets.
And note too that FHH went for the Powell Duffryn Low Track force bogie for its new coal hopper wagons. In his recent review of freight charges, not only did the Rail Regulator halve access charges, he also introduced discounts for those wagons with lower than average track forces. Thus FHH's new HHAs pay £3.68 per 1000 gross tonne miles, compared with £3.87 for the classic two axle MGR wagons and £4.40 for the the HTA gondola cars. The HHA also has 75mile/h capability.
On top of this, coal haulage has traditionally been paid on a per tonne basis. This provides a big incentive to maximise train loads, where the HHA gives a 74tonne payload on four axles. With coal density varying tests are carried out to find the maximum number of buckets to be loaded.
With the average length of coal haul soaring, you can see how keeping the trains rolling, with lower access charges, gives FHH a commercial edge. And also why there are currently fun and games over access to paths for Scots coal trains on the Glasgow South Western route (Informed Sources June).
Compared with classic MGR, today sees large variations in length of haul. Coal for the Aire Valley power stations can originate locally, at HIT or Redcar or come from Scottish open cast mines.
Gascoigne Wood colliery to Drax can generate six journeys a day for a set, the run from Scotland one a day.
FHH looks to average 14-16 loaded journeys per week out of a set of HHAs. As a rule of thumb, each set needs five drivers.
Back in the heyday of MGR in Yorkshire , BR had a computerised train planning system to handle the combinations of quantities and flows. At the Ferrybridge Depot, Mk 1 human brains of Planner Dave Brook and his three strong team are essential complements to computer.
We met on a Monday, just as Dave was starting to plan the following week, so the interview was necessarily short. Every week's train plan is different. As Dave explained, there are no ‘bankers' with which to start. This weeks deliveries to Ferrybridge, for example, were totally different to last week's and those for the two weeks before that.
Starting point are booked line possessions on the coal routes. With more mid-week possessions in force, access can be restricted.
Then the booked loading and discharge points and quantities have to be matched, helped by a simplifier which also includes loading and discharge times. For example, the week being planned included Good Friday when Ferrybridge and Rugely would be open but some loading points closed. This could mean running extra trains on the other days to ensure that Ferrybridge got its contracted 27 train loads.
Planning strategy is to get the ‘longer distance stuff' timed and diagrammed first, with those power stations specifying delivery times taking priority. In the coming week there would be 20 Scot's trains for which exact times are not specified.
In terms of destinations Ferrybridge comes first, followed by Rugely, Cottam and so on. Because it's rarely true MGR any more, the planners may look for a longer trip to come into a power station and then run empty to a local colliery to minimise empty mileage.
With all the sets available (less one for maintenance) diagrammed, and a ‘bit of flex' incluced, drivers have to be rostered. More brain work since Dave and his team know each driver's route knowledge. Into this also has to be fitted traction and drivers for the oil and cement traffic handled from Ferrybridge.
And there is considerable pride in being able to reschedule at short notice during the week to meet customers changing requirements.
FHH's launch contract was with Enron Coal Transport Signed in August 2000 it covered the haulage of coal from East Coast ports to the Aire Valley power stations. Early in 2001 came a four year contract to supply Drax power station from various UK collieries. The first FHH coal train ran in February 2001 and in March 2003, the 10,000 th was clocked up.
FHH has grown fast. With 223(?) drivers it already has more footplate staff than its intermodal parent. Annual turnover is around £55million. But as readers will have note from the names of the inaugural customers, it has not been plain sailing. Enron famously collapsed as did TXU Energi which took the output from Drax.
Interestingly the commercial failures of its two biggest customers did not affected the growth of FHH coal. Other suppliers were on the ‘phone to the commercial team at Ferybridge within two to three weeks to see what capacity might become available.
Which brings us to the Aire Valley Train Crew Depot which opened in May last year. This is an open-plan portacabin complex in the shadow of Ferrybridge signal box.
As soon as I walked in I was conscious of a bustle. The Depot is home to 55 drivers, the operational control centre for FHH in the North of England plus General Manager Coal Roger Pettit and his small commercial and planning team.
There are satellite ‘depots', with 15 drivers at Immingham (primarily on oil), 17 at Kiveton Park , eight at Wilton and six at Troon in Scotland . This brings the total to 100 drivers of which around 80 are usually on coal traffic. The remainder handle the growing oil business in the area plus cement from Blue Circle 's Hope works.
As a new company, Heavy Haul didn't inherit any drivers. Starting with an empty roster it has recruited carefully and selectively. As one driver put it, ‘we're here because we want to be here'. He had been a driver/instructor with a passenger TOC.
Clearly, the responsibility is an attraction, but this driver stressed ‘they give you back up', such as following-up health & safety issues. At his previous, very large, TOC ‘no one wanted to know – it was like knocking your head against a brick wall'.
Today, the coal business appears to be strong. FHH has been working at maximum capacity over the winter and the summer fall in demand seems less marked than in previous years. Roger Pettit expects a period of stability in the market– although he adds cautiously ‘if there is any such thing'.
With options on extra coal wagons available, FHH continues to seek more traffic, both from existing customers and new business. While looking to grow, there is also concern about the ability of the present close knit organisation to scale up. It is not a bad problem to have.
Footplating No 66 524 and 17 HHA wagons from HIT to Ferrybridge revealed the new face of the ‘old alliance' between railways and coal. The dramatic reduction in deep mined coal and the dash for gas following privatisation of the Electricity Supply Industry has brought radical change.
Instead of classic Merry Go Round working around the Selby coalfield, we were setting off from a port, where wagons were loaded from stockpiles rather than bunkers, on a magical mystery tour from South Humberside , through South and North Yorks to get to Ferrybridge. That week in April 170 coal trains would leave HIT, with FHH and EWS sharing the work.
And progress would be slow. It soon became a running joke with Driver Rick Hasnik, that every time the speedometer settled on 60mile/h another TSR would be round the next curve. With so much braking and acceleration, I began to wonder whether Freightliner might have a claim on Network Rail for the extra fuel consumption.
Our train had arrived at HIT at 10.30 and bucket loading was finished by 11.30. We got the yellow to leave the spur at 12.16. Picking up the mobile Driver Hasnik reported to FHH control ‘Six Golf Fourteen departing Immingham 12.16' as the General motors diesel spooled up and we started to run along the departure siding at 15mile/h.
Elapsed time (h:min)
|Hambleton S jct|
|Hambleton W jct||01:49|
|Pontefract Monk Hill||02:24|
|Ferrybridge Box||02 :32|
Either distance lends enchantment or I am getting less tolerant because the 66 seems a much rougher and noisier beast than the Foster Yeoman 59s. In the cab there is a hard drumming on power and the odd buzz and rattle. ‘Surrounded by vibration in a very noisy cab' the notebook records as we run through Brockleby Junction.
And while I'm complaining there is still that irritating jerk when weak field is taken and the ride is rough. But what the hell, the 66 does the job.
On the other hand the frequency of TSRs on this heavy haul route suggests poor track quality. Some of them, Driver Hasnik tells me have been around for five years. ‘Temporary' he asks?
Just before we reach the ECML there is a graphic reminder of the changing market for coal. Over on the left, the cooling towers are the only remnant of the former Thorpe Marsh power station still standing.
After 1hr 28min we come off Applehurst Jct onto the ECML and head north. And a remarkable Panorama opens up. From left to right across the windscreen you can see the steaming cooling towers of three power stations, Ferrybridge, Eggborough and Drax.
Soon, running at 60mile/h we cross an EWS coal train heading for Drax, a Class 66 with 19 on. Drax burns only UK produced coal. This steady progress is more the style of heavy haul running I am used to, but before long a flashing yellow warns of Hambleton South Jct ahead.
We are held at the West junction while an all-stations to Manchester Victoria hurries by, then it is power on, and we are soon running past Gascoigne Wood colliery with an EWS train in the sidings and more 66's. A feather shows we are turning left at Gascoigne Wood junction for the run down to Castleford where we will loop back via Pontefract Monkhill to enter Ferrybridge power station from the south. At Gascoigne Wood we are five minutes away from Ferrybridge but access to the loop is available only for northbound trains.
After emptying, this train is due for a change of loco, as 66 524 is due maintenance by LWNR at Midland Road , Leeds . This exchange is arranged by the drivers by telephone, confirming estimated time of arrival.
Another use of the phone is to keep the FHH coal planners current on the impact of all those TSRs. We are close to time, which shows that the planners have got it right, but if a train is significantly ahead or behind time, the planners will be notified.
At Castleford, the final call is made, this time to the power station controller, with the information that six golf fourteen is 15 minutes away.
Outside Pontefract Driver Resnik points out the loop that is going to be reinstated for use by waiting coal trains. And we get the only irritating piece of regulation in the trip as a red aspect goes to yellow just as the train comes to a complete stand.
After passing the recently closed Prince of Wales Colliery, we stop again at Ferrybridge box for me to get off. The journey from HIT has taken 2hr 32 min 4 sec.
As the Yorkshire collieries close and low sulphur coal is imported or brought south from Scotland , this journey has been typical of the 21 st century replacement for MGR. With HIT expanding this route is ripe for upgrading – perhaps even to heavier axle loads. Meanwhile a three year programme, with additional possessions, is underway to clear those ‘permanent' TSRs