Crossrail’s passenger trains will crowd on to tracks that are currently used by freight trains, but at what cost to the rail freight industry?

Most commutes into London are congested, sweaty and unreliable, and they are set to worsen as passenger growth continues to outstrip railway capacity.

The only new commuter rail solution being mooted by the government – other than asking fellow passengers to ‘please move down’ – is the £10bn east-west London rail link Crossrail.

It is therefore difficult to sympathise with the 364 parties that lodged objections to the Crossrail Bill, among them some of the UK’s biggest rail freight companies and associations.

Rail freight has grown steadily by about 60% over the last 10 years (see graph 1) and is predicted to rise further in the next 10 (see graph 2). The objectors believe Crossrail will badly affect their businesses, property holdings and ability to handle ever-increasing freight loads.

Britain’s largest rail freight operator, English Welsh & Scottish Railway (EWS), Freightliner Group and the Rail Freight Group, which represents the rail freight industry, are among those that petitioned parliament in September over the Crossrail Bill. The bill must pass into law before work on the rail link can start and Crossrail hopes to have royal assent by spring 2007.

The rail freight companies support the scheme in principle, but say Crossrail is seeking ‘draconian powers’ that will allow it to assume existing network track access agreements for itself, which will increase rail congestion and displace freight on to the roads.

They argue this will prevent future freight growth, which the UK can ill afford. Freight carriage will be needed to cope with planned expansion at south-east ports, such as London Gateway, ambitious new housing targets in the south-east, and the construction of the 2012 Olympic facilities.

EWS says up to 10% of the 100 million tonnes of rail freight it hauls annually could be forced on to road transport, equating to an extra 800,000 lorry journeys a year.

Graham Smith, planning director at EWS, says apart from affecting its business, it would have adverse environmental effects and is at odds with the government’s policy on increasing rail freight and reducing road transport.

‘The private sector has invested more than £1.5bn in rail freight in the last 10 years and it has grown by 60% since 1995,’ says Smith. ‘What the government is saying is that it will give preference to Crossrail first and rail freight and other rail operations must come second, third or fourth. It is unacceptable and unfair.’

Lord Berkeley, chairman of the Rail Freight Group, says Crossrail is trying to provide low-cost infrastructure by ‘thieving capacity’ from the existing national rail network to avoid the construction costs of an additional dedicated surface track.

‘If they can’t pay for dedicated tracks then they shouldn’t try to steal them from us,’ says Berkeley.

Head of rail strategy at Freightliner Group, Lindsay Durham, says that even the temporary displacement of freight on to roads during Crossrail construction is problematic. It says it would be reluctant to stop running services.

‘Once freight is on the roads it is hard for rail freight companies to win it back,’ says Durham. ‘Industry processes that have been in place under the Office of the Rail Regulator for the last 10 years to ensure open and fair play on the railways could be overridden by Crossrail.’

It is also claimed that the bill will authorise the compulsory purchase of ‘excessive’ amounts of land owned by rail freight companies for temporary and permanent use.

EWS has listed 10 sites from Slough to Acton which it says are being blighted, some permanently, by the proposed works and creating uncertainty for itself and third parties.

It cites a number of locations that have been identified by Crossrail for compulsory purchase including a siding at Langley station which is ‘ideal for rail-served businesses’.

Smith says its negotiations with freight and logistics company for the long-term use of the site as a national distribution centre could be jeopardised. The petition also notes that it is planning to develop its Slough depot further, in conjunction with Slough Trading Estate, to provide an ‘at the door’ rail freight service to estate tenants.

Smith says that unless an alternative site is considered for Crossrail’s needs, it will be unable to carry out further development at the site.

He adds that EWS and other freight companies would work with Crossrail in proposing alternative locations to conduct Crossrail activities, such as stabling rolling stock, but argue that if an agreement cannot be reached, the bill should not become law until there is a full consideration of alternative sites.

The bottom line

Slough Trading Estate has filed an objection to Crossrail. Stephen Bailey, regional director for Slough Trading Estate, says: ‘We are supportive of the Crossrail Bill but we have made the petition in the interests of our estate occupiers. Most of our concerns relate to minor issues, such as road closures and work to a bridge, but we are confident that the work can proceed following discussion with Crossrail.’

He said it had not been approached by EWS but it is helpful to keep rail options open.

Other concerns raised by the objectors include the manner in which the importance of rail freight has been downgraded in the consultation process. They say that it should be mandatory to hear rail freight interests as it is for passenger interests.

Robbie Owen, head of the major projects group at Bircham Dyson Bell, a law firm that specialises in government-sponsored projects and is representing up to 100 objectors, says: ‘The entire business of the rail freight industry is at risk and it is wrong that it is having to spend more than £1m protecting its interests for a scheme that does not even have funding and may not go ahead.’

Ian Rathbone, spokesman for Crossrail, says it will not comment on individual petitions which will be heard by a select committee early next year. However, he stresses that Crossrail has involved all interested parties in the consultation process.

‘We are not shoving something on to people. There has been a three-year consultation process and rail freight has been consulted,’ says Rathbone. ‘Democratic processes of discussion and answer are in progress for objectors to the scheme.’

He says Crossrail is working with petitioners to try to resolve as many objections as possible and said any compulsory purchase of property or blight would be fully compensated.

‘If Crossrail goes ahead it will be the largest infrastructure project in western Europe,’ says Rathbone. ‘You have to have a large amount of Workspace.’

Alexander Hilton, director of Campaign for Crossrail, a coalition of Crossrail supporters, says: ‘This is a storm in a teacup. The select committee will negotiate all of the problems raised by rail freight and will come to a sensible accommodation and logical way forward,’ he says. ‘A dedicated track for Crossrail is wishful thinking. A proper review of existing and future rail freight capability in the UK is needed.’

Whatever the case, the rail freight industry is ready for a fight. Smith concludes: ‘Crossrail is striking at the heart of the way the railway industry is set up. It should have its own track, not fill up others with Crossrail trains. It has railroaded the freight industry.’

Related files/tables