A passenger train without any seats recently called at Liverpool Street. It’s not a trial of a new standing-only train, but a way of delivering cargo freight into city centres.

Inside the gutted train (c) ianVisits

Delivering freight into towns by rail isn’t new – in fact, until the rise of the motor vehicle and later containerisation of cargo, almost every railway station had freight sidings next to them. However, most freight on rail today is in sealed containers, and vans often handle the “last mile” delivery from depots to shops, or increasingly direct to homes.

However, while the rise of next-day parcel delivery direct to the home or office is a boon for consumers, it’s putting pressure on road congestion, so a number of companies are looking at how to reduce the number of vans going door to door in cities.

The most common option is to use warehouses in town centres. Vans deliver to the warehouse, and low-emission cargo bikes and the like handle the last mile from the warehouse to the home.

But, could the railway, so used to handling heavy freight step in to deliver the lighter stuff as well?

And that’s what the rail freight company Varamis Rail is trying to do — developing in a way a return to the old way of doing things — trains bringing loosely packed cargo right into the heart of the city, where it can be delivered by low-emission vehicles to their final destinations.

And that’s why a former Greater Anglia Class 321 train has had all of its passenger seats ripped out so that it can be transformed into a dedicated cargo freight train and loaded up with industry-standard cargo cages.

Class 321 train at Liverpool Street station (c) ianVisits

These roller cages, which most retailers use, are ideal for securely moving medium-sized deliveries, which are often sent to stores by delivery vans. Keeping to the same standard cages makes it much easier for delivery firms to switch from vans to trains.

Using old trains instead of wagons is necessary as, unlike container traffic, the rolling cages used by delivery firms aren’t waterproof, so the van, or in this case, the train, needs to be.

Collapsed rolling cages used for moving cargo (c) ianVisits

Varamis Rail’s converted cargo train was in Liverpool Street a couple of weeks ago to show off what could be done — and Liverpool Street is a suitable station for this project as there’s a taxi rank and road right next to Platform 11 — so it’s possible to bring a freight train into the station and unload it directly into waiting cargo bikes and low-emission vans for the final delivery run.

Part of the rationale for the project is to give cargo firms an alternative to lorries on roads, which in London isn’t just a congestion problem for other motorists, it’s a cost for the freight firm in the form of the congestion charge.

This single Class 321 train can remove 40 to 50 HGVs off the roads, and by delivering the cargo as close as possible to the final destination, it could reduce the cost of localised warehousing for last-mile deliveries.

Speaking at the event, TfL’s Scott Wilding said that London’s population is likely to reach around 9 million by the end of the decade, and more people wanting more stuff means there have to be improvements in how that stuff is delivered to them.

Scott Wilding explained that TfL is pretty much at the end of what they can do with the conventional road network to reduce delays for motorists, from improving road junction sizes and improving traffic light signalling.

In terms of individuals, London is already pretty good at reducing private car use, with people using public transport and with more cycle lanes, a sizeable increase in active travel has taken place. These reduce road congestion caused by people, but not for parcels.

However, with more deliveries taking place for a growing population, unless alternatives to lorries on roads are found, improvements in road safety might go backwards, but also efforts to reduce air pollution and congestion won’t get anywhere.

Steve Evans, founder of XeroE, explained that the biggest barrier to their ability to expand the use of electric bikes for last-mile delivery has been getting the goods in from the edge of London warehouses, as electric vans still lack the range and capacity. If, and it’s still a bit of an if, freight deliveries can be made by rail directly into the city centre, then that solves the problem.

XeroE is already working on developing a containerised cargo bike. In this system, they can pack a container in the warehouse, ship it by rail, and lift it straight into the waiting cargo bike at the other end to be sent straight out to drop off parcels. As it currently takes about 90 minutes to completely empty the roller cages from the freight train onto the platform, those time savings will also be important.

e-bikes next to Platform 11 to collect deliveries (c) ianVisits

Apart from the benefits to London’s road traffic users in having fewer lorries on the roads, the project also fits in with ambitions to increase the use of rail for freight.

Network Rail’s chairman, Lord Hendy, noted that the government has set a target of growing rail freight by at least 75% by 2050 and that while conventional container bulk will have to make up some of that, they are looking at how they can encourage new freight markets to switch to rail – such as the last-mile delivery market.

Commenting on the huge transformation in parcel deliveries to the home, he said “The future is bright for rail freight in a way that maybe wasn’t considered 10 or 15 years ago.”

Varamis Rail is already running a service between Birmingham and Glasgow, with links to Edinburgh down to Doncaster planned for this spring. A regular service into London should be up and running by the end of this year.

But who would have thought an old Class 321 train once nicknamed the Dusty Bin (after the TV show 3-2-1) would be at the forefront of the rail freight revolution.

This was a first class carriage (c) ianVisits

First class cargo (c) ianVisits

Ramps to move rolling cages on/off the trains (c) ianVisits

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27 comments
  1. NG says:

    I think the “Rail Operations Group” are also trialling this re-introduced concept?

  2. Geofff says:

    Must have been embarrassing to put on such a demonstration & not be able to load a single cage of dummy cartons. Wonder what prevented them?

  3. JW says:

    A shame nobody has worked out that statics on electrified lines are the perfect place to install EV chargers, for instance to charge a fleet of electric vans, cargo bikes and commuter vehicles.

    • JW says:

      *stations

    • Mick says:

      It’s not as easy as that, there would be issues in emergency isolations and the available current varies depending how many trains are in section, how many are applying full power etc.
      Then there’s the billing, When I last worked for GA (2020) the traction current bill was over £30million PA. The railways pay for electricity.

    • MikeP says:

      @Mick and they pay so much for electricity that DB Rail are selling their Class 90s, reverting to diesel power.

      Insanity, but that’s a poorly regulated privatised electricity supply industry for you.

    • ianVisits says:

      The station doesn’t get its power from the railway — so adding electricity demand next to the station is totally independent of the power supply for the trains.

  4. Miv Tucker says:

    Re JW: I think you’ll find it’s cos its the wrong type of electricity 😀

  5. Geoff Myers says:

    So the old way is still the best way! Nothing new here this used to be done as a matter of course with freight waggons and scarab electric vehicles.

  6. John Thompson says:

    Pity they sold off all the goods yards for supermarkets or housing, and removed the bay platforms at the stations these trains would need for unloading.
    Joys of putting accountants in charge of the railway and then underfunding it so the only way to keep it going was flogging off land.

    • ianVisits says:

      Hindsight is a wonderful thing – could you have sat in an office in the 1960s-80s and won an argument that they need to keep the goods yards open because in 60 years time, millions of people will routinely order small parcels using a television connected to a telephone line and that they would expect them to be delivered to their home the next day?

  7. Ray Winfield says:

    Of course the “old ways’ are being realized in more areas than just this one. Old railway lines are being upgraded and old stations rebuilt, and long awaited and vital junctions designed and built.
    If the rail network has not been decimated in the 1960’s, the sights of car driving commuters struggling to join dual carriageways from the local villages, with all the risks of serious crashes would never happened.
    But of course it was always to be with the dubious report of Beeching and the corrupt participation of Ernest Marples, a man mired in controversy since Profumo who was linked with the road building industry.
    My father in law, a railwayman all his life remembers the delivery of fresh food to newspapers, up to three or four mail deliveries a day, and the collection and final delivery of the dearly departed from cemetery rail hubs.
    But it should be remembered that this was in the days of a public service, not a private profit at all cost business.

  8. Ian says:

    Do any of the London stations have space to store a train load of roller cages? As clearly not possible to always have ALL the vans/bikes waiting when a train come in.

  9. Jon says:

    I wonder if the Mail Rail could be brought back into operational use for this. You could probably automate the whole thing as well, similar to how Amazon have their moving shelves

    • D Gregory says:

      Royal Mail were running Bellshill to Warrington to Willsden in 2017 not sure now??

  10. Olly says:

    How about re-opening the post office underground mail
    Rail?

    • James says:

      They have as a compulsory purchase “fun ride” if you want to visit the post office museum.

  11. Steve says:

    Many stations around the country still have their redundant Royal Mail rail depots and platforms. Appreciate that they are not everywhere, but with some minor modifications they could probably be utilised at very low cost.

  12. Paul says:

    One other important point everyone is missing – loading/unloading bays in London! They have gradually reduced the bays and it’s become ever more difficult to do efficient deliveries in London without getting multiple parking tickets and also the congestion charges come into play. Try doing the job for a couple of days and you’ll see exactly what I mean! This is the reason most drivers want to avoid doing city deliveries!

  13. Matthew Roberts says:

    Paddington has an old parcels bay by platform 1 I think that could be used for loading parcels onto trains.

    The crossrail core has provisions in its track access agreement for freight to use the core tunnels providing its not dirty. (Which parcels freight isnt). it could allow parcels traffic from Kent/Essex to reach the west of the country quite efficently. or even heathrow when you consider there is a disused luggage section at Heathrow central station formerly used for loading checked baggage on the heathrow express

  14. Mike Jones says:

    Is this why Fullers are building a new Parcel Office at Liverpool St.? 😉

  15. John Usher says:

    What goes around, comes around.

    Tube stations converted from lifts to escalators, and lifts abandoned, shafts repurposed and built over, but lifts now needed for accessibility (many lifts not reaching to platform level notwithstanding), but can’t be – simply – put back, so not fit for getting people, let alone goods to the surface.

    Few siding on the deep & sub-surface tubes to park up trains to unload – even if the goods could be got up to ground level (and then where to load to vehicles for ‘The Last Mile’?) – or even to just to park them up and turn them round if journeys into the centre of town have reduced and the core remains unprofitable outside peak times.

    Goods yards at the mainline stations (or those converted to the Tube) turned over to car parks, light industry/storage or later, housing (and tower blocks around ‘Nodes’).

    Yes, 20-20 Hindsight is a wonderful thing – and of course there is ‘The Bottom Line’ (and who pays for that), but with transportation we do seem to be regularly able to throw out the proverbial ‘Baby With The Bathwater’, and not build in capacity and flexibility when things are being developed and re-developed.

    Ho Hum…

  16. MilesT says:

    Interesting but a bit niche in terms of scenarios where the last mile (as a roll cage, towed by hand/electric to destination, or decant into a bike) is worth the extra handling (twice), and of course limited capacity (one platform, a few off peak paths).

    Certainly you would expect all the retailers/food outlets in the station or just outside to get roll cages of stock this way, though, similar to the sterile transhipment process used for airports, and the station operator (network rail or TOC) could insist that all deliveries “on station” came this way.

    Empty space outbound from the station could be used by parcels/post left at handover points in the station, plus also recyclables (probably not wet rubbish to keep the trains clean).

  17. Charles K says:

    Sounds very interesting but the unloading in the city may be problematic, as noted. Platform access, added handling, lift capacity/availability…

    A disused station might become a package hub, but then we remember what killed off Rail Mail – bringing vans into central London in the wee hours is actually not that difficult. So a delivery van (potentially EV) can roll right up to a central distribution centre and unload at street level. Using Tube lines avoids road congestion, but that’s a daytime problem and Tube congestion affects even more people

    Maybe running trains right through London – from the many Heathrow-area distribution centres to the other side of London makes sense

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