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May 3, 2017

Will rail freight survive the end of the carbon era?

Worldwide, rail freight registered negative growth in 2015 and the downward trend is expected to continue from 2016 to 2017, largely due to decreasing volumes of heavy goods, such as coal and petrol. How will the sector change as more and more people switch to renewable and localised sources of energy?

By Gary Peters

Rail freight

“Coal was the financial backbone of the industry for a very long time; it was the cash cow. I am fearful, yes,” says Douglas Leeming, an associate at Arup Scotland, voicing his concern. The rail freight sector is being forced to change and, for Leeming, there can sometimes be a ‘heads in the sand’ type attitude; “I think there's a fear about sticking necks out,” he says.

The purpose of Leeming’s conversation comes after SCI Verkehr released its ‘Rail Transport Markets – Global Market Trends 2016-2025’ report, in March. The standout finding? That worldwide rail freight decreased in 2015 by 4.4% compared with the previous year. The negative trend is expected to continue in 2016-2017, says SCI Verkehr, and is “linked to the decreasing transport of heavy goods, such as coal and steel”.

The report adds: “In North America, coal transport has strongly decreased due to a shift in the energy supply matrix. A further reduction is also expected for 2016, driven by low demand in large markets like China and US. Perspectives are more optimistic in the medium term [and] slightly positive performance growth is forecasted from 2018 onwards.”

“We summarised the rail freight performance for all countries worldwide in a systematic manner,” says SCI Verkehr’s CEO Maria Leenen. “The main driver for that negative development is the poor performance of large markets of North America – less coal, and China, [with] increasing road transport due to a more developed road infrastructure.”

These findings will not surprise anyone with a business in the freight sector, due to a general move away from coal, as attitudes change and cleaner energy becomes more pervasive.

Coal’s slow decline

From a UK perspective, the latest statistics from the Office of Rail and Road, released in February and covering Q3 of 2016-2017, show that coal fell to 0.46 billion net tonne kilometres, a drop of 34.5% compared with 2015-2016 Q3.

Rewind to last year and DB Cargo UK announced plans to shed 893 jobs, following news that in the first nine months of 2016 the firm ran 1,353 coal trains, a 78% reduction on the same period in 2015.

“Although it is sad to lose this number of colleagues, almost a third of our current workforce, we are making these changes to secure positive future growth for our company and to protect the majority of jobs,” says Graham Young, head of production at DB Cargo UK. “Responsible and successful businesses evolve and reshape as their markets change, and this is what we are doing.”

Leeming says the stats show that “to a large extent, the safety net [of coal] is gone”. He adds: “The volume is not of a sufficient volume to continue that cash cow. It's exposing inefficiencies.

“By 2030, coal [for the UK] could have gone completely. It will slowly, slowly decline until it eventually becomes non-existent. That's a big challenge. The railway was always very efficient at delivering coal.”

"Coal was the financial backbone of the industry for a very long time."

For Europe, an unexpected announcement in April revealed a pledge for no new coal-fired plants to be built in the EU after 2020. National energy companies from every EU nation except Poland and Greece have signed up. For rail freight on the continent, it’s yet another wake-up call.

“26 of 28 member states have stated that they will not invest in new coal plants after 2020,” said Kristian Ruby, secretary-general of Eurelectric, a firm which represents 3,500 utilities.

Over in the US, CSX Transportation, a class 1 railroad, revealed in February a 5% decline in freight volumes for last year, including a 21% drop in coal traffic. The Association of American Railroads’ (AAR) figures show that for the month of March, approximately 80,000 carloads of coal were moved. In August 2014, it was a little over 115,000 per week on average.

AAR’s senior vice president of policy and economics John T. Gray, said in April: “Markets are continually changing and railroads have to adapt to changing circumstances. Despite recent increases, in absolute terms rail coal volumes are much lower than they were even a few years ago, and rail crude oil volumes are roughly half what they were a couple of years ago.”

But, there is optimism amongst the bad news, as Gray adds: “On the other hand, this was the best March ever for carloads of crushed stone, sand and gravel, and it was the best March for grain since 2008.”

And, note SCI Verkehr’s observations for the coming years. “In North America,” explains Leenen, “coal consumption is expected to grow again, following the increase in oil prices and the new energy policy of the US (President Donald Trump has long championed the coal industry). [Meanwhile], in China, governmental action to shift transport back to railways is expected to contribute to growth.”

A need to diversify

The shifting sands of rail freight, therefore, call for a new focus; to diversify into different markets, looking beyond the coal “cash cow”, as Leeming describes it.

“It's a turning point,” says Rail Freight Group executive director Maggie Simpson. “For the freight operators it's about going through a period of pain to get their businesses realigned. [But], if I talk to customers of rail freight, in terms of other sectors, they are very buoyant. They want more rail freight.”

Philippa Edmunds, from the Freight on Rail group, agrees: “There has been a steep decline [in coal], but on a positive side the sector is adjusting. We're getting more volume on trains and the longer the train, the better it is.

"Everyone agrees that long-distance container traffic should be on rail, for the economic, environmental and safety benefits.”

New opportunities can be found in construction materials, minerals – “we [the UK] don't move a lot of it but there's opportunity there”, adds Simpson – biomass, intermodal traffic, and, perhaps the biggest challenge, the retail market and attracting road freight onto rail.

"I think we need to be more innovative."

The freight train that left the UK for Zhejiang province, in eastern China, in April, carried with it whisky, soft drinks, vitamins, pharmaceuticals and baby products, among other things. When it arrived in London from China at the start of the year, it contained £4m worth of clothes and other consumer goods. And while that is perhaps a unique example, it demonstrates the potential that exists – the sector just has to be brave enough to grab the chance when it’s there.

“Intermodal I think is more of a challenge,” explains Leeming. “I think we need to be more innovative in that. We looked at it and had a long debate on the ability for domestic containers to move chilled goods, but there didn't seem to be that technology there.” Urgency, argues Leeming, is necessary.

In the US, figures through the week ending 1 April also show a small increase of 1.4% for intermodal traffic, compared to 2016 levels.

To answer the headline, experts say yes, rail freight will survive. The sector will transform over the coming years, and there’ll be some pain along the way, but nonetheless strong climate credentials and international efforts to reduce air pollution by taking cars off the roads will ensure freight finds its place.

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