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Observations on the opportunity to provide freight services on the proposed Minehead Rail Link.

Abstract

To adapt Jane Austen:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an HGV polluting and holding up traffic on a country road, must be in want of a rail link.”

The Minehead Rail Link Group was formed to promote the re-commissioning of rail services between Minehead and the main line at Taunton. To date the focus of the group has been on passenger services and the environmental and community benefits such services would deliver. This paper looks at the opportunity to move to rail a significant proportion of the Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) traffic currently travelling to Exmoor, Minehead and West Somerset via the A39 and A358 Trunk Roads and which cause significant pollution, noise and congestion in the process. Indeed this paper will argue that any reduction in HGV traffic will be of huge benefit to the productivity of the area and provide a major improvement in environmental conditions for those living along these routes who are blighted by heavy traffic or who visit the area as tourists.

Background

Minehead Railway opened for freight and passenger traffic between Minehead and the main line at Taunton in 1874, running continuously from that time until 1964, when freight services ceased and 1971 when passenger services ceased under British Rail restructuring. In 1976 heritage passenger services reopened between Minehead and Bishops Lydeard under the successful stewardship of West Somerset Railway (WSR). However, rail infrastucture, track and signalling remains in place between Bishops Lydeard and the mainline and occasionally, through service charters are still run.

The area between Bridgwater (access to the A39), Taunton (access to the A358) and Minehead is one of exceptional beauty. The A358 travels in the valley between the Quantocks and Exmoor’s Brendon Hills and the A39 travels immediately to the North East side of the Quantocks before merging with the A358 at Williton and traveling on into

Exmoor. Although designated ‘A’ Roads both the A358 and A39 have the character of ‘country roads’, being almost exclusively single carriageway and in parts very narrow. There is little or no scope to widen either road and both are at, or near to, capacity with typical journey times between Minehead and the M5 at either Taunton or Bridgwater (approximately 25 miles) being c. 1 hour and likely to increase over time.

As Exmoor, Minehead and West Somerset have developed as an increasingly popular tourist destination the volume of freight traffic has also grown in response. The growing trend for on-line shopping is fuelling a growth in parcel traffic to the area accompanied by the opening of two new supermarket chains in Minehead in recent years. All of which add to congestion and journey times to the area which contributes to the area’s low productivity resulting from poor physical connectivity to the rest of the UK.

Outline Proposal for discussion

This paper will look briefly at one possible solution to the growth in freight traffic along the A358 and A39 by establishing a rail freight operation utilising existing capacity on the WSR. However, this is not a feasibility study and detailed work on any final proposal will be required.

It is envisaged in this paper that WSR would operate this service as an additional revenue stream, from charging freight users for the service, to their current passenger business model. In suggesting this the author argues that the inclusion of heritage freight services would be an additional draw to heritage rail enthusiasts. However, it would also be possible to establish a separate operating entity making joint use of the track and infrastructure in the way that main line freight services operate. Whether such a freight service would be profitable is not known at this stage, but there will be operational savings from eliminating existing road services that will be available to support funding of rail operations. Additionally, it would support the environmental objectives of the main corporate freight users, such as the major retail outlets, and provide valuable corporate PR opportunities.

Usually in the UK rail-freight operations are restricted (by cost) to bulk-commodity or long distance containerised freight and are not deemed a viable alternative to road haulage for general merchandise and short-haul journeys.. However, freight operations to and from Minehead have a unique character:

They operate over environmentally sensitive country roads of limited width often very close to historic dwellings.

They are essentially one-way haulage operations replenishing outlets in Minehead (Butlins / Tesco / Lidl / Morrisons / Co-Op / Argos / M&Co / TOFS / etc) and return empty. Back-haul is mainly waste packaging and empty stillages.

Most of the areas freight requirement, with the exception of bulk fuel, is (or can) be moved in stillages and cages which can be quickly and simply cross docked from road-to-rail-to-road.

  • Note – some freight is refrigerated which may require specialist fulfilment centre equipment, rolling stock and distribution vehicles (Reefers).

Due to congestion the approximately 50 mile round trip requires the commitment of a goods vehicle and driver for up to 3 hours (a third of his working day).

  • Note – it is unusual for outlets to share vehicle capacity even when not fully utilised

HGVs on single file roads such as the A39 and A358 in West Somerset contribute disproportionately to congestion and delays.

HGV generate high levels of pollution, vibration and noise which is harmful to Exmoor and West Somerset’s unique natural environment, historic villages and towns.

HGVs on single file country roads are a disproportionate hazard to the increasing number of cyclists in West Somerset.

Conceptually, what is proposed is very simple, namely to set up two cross-dock operations at either end of the Taunton – Minehead Line and use a rail-freight service between the two points, The fulfilment centre would be located at the Taunton end of the line served by existing HGVs and the distribution centre would be located at the Minehead end of the line served by light vans (ideally powered by electricity).

Cross dock operations are well established within the logistics and transport industry. For this proposal it is assumed that freight will move either in wheeled cages or palletised stillages that can be unloaded quickly from a goods vehicle and cross-docked onto a rail goods-van.

A Consolidation Centre Cross-Dock would be established at the Taunton end of the line, possible sites include Bishops Lydeard, adjacent to Broad Gauge Business Park and adjacent to the Silk Mills Park & Ride in Taunton.

The rail goods van would then travel to a Distribution Centre at the Minehead end of the line, possible sites include adjacent to Morrisons’ car park and adjacent to Dunster Station. This facility could be physically smaller because it would not need to handle turning and parking by HGVs. Rather, distribution to local outlets could be via a small fleet of light vans (ideally electric vehicles) operating throughout the day.

Goods-vans could be moved as part of existing scheduled heritage services or newly scheduled services before and after heritage operations.

Refrigerated operations will be required and this may require cold storage at the Consolidation Centre. In the short term this could be provided by using ‘Reefer Shipping Containers’ plugged ito a power source. Similarly, rolling stock could be flat-beds carrying reefer containers powered by the loco. Given the simplicity of distribution in Minehead it is not envisaged that reefer operations would be required at the Minehead DC.

It is possible that non-reefer rolling stock could utilise Heritage Stock, if available, to be in-keeping with WSR stock, brand and business model.

In principle this service could accommodate a wide variety of general merchandise from a range of sources including:

Food & drinks (fresh, frozen and chilled)

Dry groceries and consumables

Furniture and household goods

Fashion goods

Parcels

Implications

Clearly, this proposal is at a very early conceptual stage and will need more work. Nevertheless there are some probable implications that should be considered:

Any freight operation would need to be professionally manned and managed, by which it is meant that it is unlikely that WSR could utilise a significant proportion of volunteers in its operation.

  • There may also be implications in terms of National Labour Agreements with Rail Unions.

The proposal would need to gain the support of the majority if not all the corporate freight operators in Minehead.

It is probable that parcels of land would need to be acquired and developed for which both financial and planning support would be needed.

Conclusion

Whilst there is more work to be done to develop this proposal, the possibility of adding freight operations to any eventual passenger rail link between Minehead and Taunton has a number of attractions:

It supports the premise that full rail links will mitigate growth in road traffic along the congested A39 and A358.

It provides an environmentally attractive option to road freight that is in keeping with the Natural Assets of West Somerset and Exmoor.

It is probable that it will improve productivity in one of the lowest productive areas of the UK and support local and national government’s objectives for productivity growth through improved connectivity and transport links to the rest of the UK.

About the Author

Tony Walford is a logistics and transport professional with over thirty years’ experience in the field. He has held senior roles within leading global logistics organisations and is a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport (CILT) in the UK.

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