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An incremental approach to increasing capacity is paying dividends for the freight operator
From birth, EWS has struggled to find its true personality. Its original Chief Executive, Ed Burkhardt, who led the consortium which bought the British Rail trainload freight businesses in 1996, never really grasped the difference between his north American short-line Wisconsin Central and freight operation within a modern, European, predominantly passenger railway.
Ed went in 1999 and Philip Mengel was brought in to get realign the ducks. With order restored, it was time to focus on running a railway again and in January 2004 Keith Heller took over at Doncaster as Chief Executive Officer.
At 57, and having risen to become Canadian National’s Senior Vice President for the Eastern Canada Division, which is a lot of railway, Keith Heller is of an age and seniority where some managers might be tapering off before retirement. But it looks to me as though taking over the largest operator in Europe’s most dynamic freight railway is just the job for someone looking to end a career fortissimo rather than diminuendo.
But what impresses me is not just the energy, but the adaptation to UK and European operating practices, regulatory constraints and politics. These frustrated and infuriated Ed: Keith Heller sees them as part of the territory to be overcome, challenged or worked round, in pursuit of a profitable business.
One thing which Mr Heller is pursuing very hard, and the reason for my visit, is the need to get more profit out of every path. This is becoming increasingly important for all operators as capacity on the network becomes more constrained.
Nowhere more so than for one of the rail freight industry’s current honey pots – Anglo-Scottish coal. With 102 tonne gross HTA wagons, haulage is about as efficient as it can get in terms of payload.
But pathing over the Glasgow & South Western and the Settle & Carlisle lines – the direct route to the Yorkshire power stations - is constrained by infrastructure which is still specified for Sprinter diesel multiple units and diverted locomotive hauled services. In response, Over the past year, EWS has worked with Network Rail to lengthen its coal trains, adding a wagon at a time.
If trial runs showed that the Class 66 could hack it, and timings did not suffer, another wagon was added. Currently EWS is running trains of 21-23 HTAs on Scottish coal compared with the standard 19 wagon consist when the development work started.
As a result, between March and December 2005 the average tonnage per locomotive on Anglo-Scottish coal trains has increased by 30%. Wagon productivity has also improved, the annual tonnage per wagon rising by 20%.
According to Mr Heller, ‘freight ought to be the dominant player on the S&C’ with ‘appropriate money’ put into the infrastructure. Freight is indeed what British Rail would have called ‘Prime User’ on the S&C. But Network Rail is currently spending a further £58 million on restoring the historic ‘Regional Railways’ specification for a second time.
Here, of course, we come to the issue of open access track access charges discussed elsewhere in this column. I can’t see EWS and Freightliner wanting to pay more than their current variable access charges, based on axle loads, suspension and speed. Mr Heller sees the cost as a wider network issue. He argues that the benefits of taking coal traffic off the East and West Coast main lines would be worth more to the InterCity operators – ‘a bigger win’ - than the benefits to EWS of using the more direct route.
While 21-23 HTAs is now the norm, EWS has kept on pushing the envelope. Further trials have shown that a single Class 66 locomotive could handle 27 HTA wagons over the Settle & Carlisle reliably. However, the performance, especially on the long climbs, would make trip-time uneconomic. Keith Heller recounted footplating night time trials with a 30 wagon load – on one occasion helping to hand sand the track when the Class 66 stalled on a GSW climb.
Naturally, with his North American background, Keith Heller is not averse to double heading. The problem here is that you need a step increase in train lengths to justify the second locomotive.
Thus double heading 30 HTA wagons would increase the cost per tonne but 40 wagon trains would be comparable with current costs. After my interview, the premature blockade of the S&C was announced, with Anglo-Scottish freight transferred to the Carlisle-Newcastle line.
This has increased the total number of freight trains from all operators using the route, from 25 to 65 a day, with about half running overnight. EWS will be double heading its Anglo-Scottish coal trains with rakes of 42 HTAs.
This incremental approach to improving the productivity of Anglo-Scottish coal traffic is a handy introduction to EWS’s long term vision for what Planning Director Graham Smith calls the ‘Big Freight Railway’. In addition to longer trains, ‘Big’ also encompasses increased axle loads and a larger loading gauge.
While EWS knows what it wants to achieve, Keith Heller emphasises that getting there will be a ‘journey, not a one step deal’. As the infrastructure is renewed, he would like to see the work specified to meet the future needs of the Big Freight Railway, whether it is axle load, W12 loading gauge or passing loop lengths.
This is, of course, not a novel idea. One reason for the low cost of the East Coast Main line electrification was that the former Eastern Region civil engineers planned long-term. So, although trains were still diesel hauled, when bridges were renewed they were rebuilt with clearances for overhead electrification. Come the day, and electrical clearance costs on the ECML were minimal.
While coal is about length and weight, inter-modal requires length and volume. And through its developing European operations EWS is expecting to generate substantial inter-modal traffic.
Ideally, this will require clearance of the key UK routes for the W12 loading gauge to accommodate inter-modal units, including swap bodies, which are wider than the 9ft 6in maritime containers which fit within W10. And, as with coal, pathing constraints on the main trunk routes will make longer trains desirable.
A high proportion of inter-modal rail traffic uses the West Coast Main Line for part of its journey. At present EWS services on the route are limited to 84 Standard Length Units – equivalent to a train length of 530m.
When it launched its West Coast strategy the Strategic Rail Authority aimed to increase freight capacity by extending the lengths of passing loops to 750m and giving access to only those maximum length freight trains with adequate traction power to meet sectional running times.
When it comes to passing loops Keith Heller is an old hand. He recalls when Canadian National was Government owned, it had a railroad-wide programme of passing loop extensions, The length chosen was 6000ft.
Sometimes this was the maximum length available but often 12,000 ft loops could have been installed at little incremental cost. ‘We were so in our heads about 6000ft that we missed an opportunity’.
Some 20 years later these loops were extended, nominally to 10-12000 ft, ‘But where we could build 15 (15,000) we built 15’
So, instead of 750m in the UK, Keith Heller wants to make 775m the future minimum, since this is the European maximum length. He sees this as another way of bringing down the ‘way too high’ costs of delivering good, adding, ‘wouldn’t it be smart if as a country we were quote unquote European compatible?’
Once again you have to make a first step somewhere. For Keith Heller this would be the ability to run 775m long W12 gauge inter-modal trains from the Channel Tunnel Rail Link into the Willesden Euroterminal. He reckons that the cost savings resulting from the, admittedly heavy, clearance work would be reflected in a significant effect on international lorry traffic.
‘I have a solution if it were my railway, but it wouldn’t fly here’ he told me, adding ‘there’s at least one tunnel that has to be fixed.
‘Big’ is not just aimed at the UK Network. Coming from the land of 35 tonne axle loads, the EWS Chief wants Europe to contribute to improving freight efficiency. Thus the first step on axle loads is not 35 tonnes in the UK, but an increased Continental freight maximum from the present 22 tonnes to match the 25 tonnes in the UK.
Reference has been made in previous columns to Network Rail’s concept of a high axle load rail link between Immingham and Hull and the Yorkshire power stations. The aim would be to encourage the diversion of imported coal from Hunterston. Mr Heller sees this as one of his first steps.
Everyone would sign up to the concept of packing more into a path
If we had a European compatible rail network you’d see
Essentially, the ‘big Freight Railway’ is about infrastructure, although new traction and rolling stock would eventually be required in the form of larger capacity wagons and more powerful locomotives. But there is also a critical operational issue, where the freight and passenger operators share a common concern – engineering work at weekends.
Mr Heller pulled up a chart of daily EWS locomotive utilisation on his desktop computer. This revealed the impact of closures and possessions on the freight industry; very little revenue earning freight is being hauled at weekends.
For example, coal deliveries end at mid-day Saturday. By Sunday the power stations are taking coal from the stockpiles to feed the boilers. Perversely, weekend closures only increases the pressure on the coal routes, since the freight companies have to deliver seven days’ coal consumption in five and a half days.
That equates to 27% more tonnes each working day. A seven day freight railway would smooth the supply and reduce the number of trains run each.
Quoting his Canadian experience, the EWS CEO doesn’t accept that you have to stop the trains to work on the tracks. He gave me a quick-fire demonstration of Canadian National radio communication protocols used to minimise the impact of possessions on traffic while maintaining safe working.
Bi-directional signalling plays an important role in keeping the trains running on CN by routeing slower trains out of the way. This routine procedure is ‘one of my bug-bears’ says Mr Heller. In February a party of senior Network Rail directors visited Canadian National to see how it is done.
Weekend closures are not just a freight issue. As Tony Collins of Virgin Trains told my colleague Tony Miles, ‘The biggest problem is that currently we are a five-day a week railway and there’s a potential danger that Network Rail have got comfortable having the weekends’. Hopefully the visitors to Keith Heller’s former patch may bring back some new thinking.
Big Freight Railway timescale
While EWS sees the concept as a whole, some elements have greater commercial value in the short to medium term. This gives the following order of priority.
1 775 m long trains
Readers may find it odd that a time when the railway is under financial pressure, this month’s column leads with a freight operator’s views of a bigger, better network that will involve substantial expenditure over a long period. I would argue that something has to be done to end the stagnation in enhancement schemes which followed the collapse of Railtrack and it is now time to start the railway moving forward again.
With the government denying that the current Periodic Review will result in service cuts, now is the time to call its bluff, before the Office of Regulation embeds the current network capability in concrete. I suspect that the Government would rather spend money rectifying from its lost decade of enhancements, than chasing after a new high speed line.