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Rail freight in Great Britain declined 5% year-on-year in Q1 2024

The latest report on freight rail usage and performance from the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), which covers the period from January to March 2024, finds that the total volume of freight moved was down 5% compared to Q1 2023.

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For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the ORR’s reports, they typically distinguish between freight moved and freight lifted.

Freight moved measures the amount of freight moved on the railway network, taking into account the weight of the load and the distance carried. It is measured in net tonne kilometres.

Freight lifted is the mass of goods carried on the rail network measured in tonnes, excluding the weight of the locomotives and wagons.

Freight moved

According to the report, from April 2023 to March 2024, the total freight moved in Great Britain was 15.76 billion net tonne kilometres, maintaining stability compared to the previous year. However, the report points out that the volume of freight moved has generally declined over the last decade.

Notably, intermodal non-maritime freight saw a significant 40% year-on-year increase, surpassing one billion net tonne kilometres for the first time since records began in 2010.

This shift has largely been attributed to the food and drink sector’s transition from road to rail for trunk haulage​​.

Construction freight also saw an 8% increase, reaching its highest volume since 1998, driven by robust demand in the construction sector.

Conversely, intermodal maritime freight fell slightly by 0.4%, while coal freight plummeted by 83%. The Office for Road and Rail states that this was a result of a sharp decrease in coal imports and a collapse in coking coal flows following the closure of coke ovens at Scunthorpe​​.

While the data covering the last 12 months does not show a year-on-year reduction in rail freight volumes, the picture is different when it comes to Q1 2024.

The total volume of freight moved by rail in Great Britain in the first 3 months of the year was 3.88 billion net tonne kilometres, a 5% decrease from the same period the previous year.

Q1 2024 also marked the lowest January to March total since records began in 1998, with significant reductions across most commodity groups except intermodal non-maritime, which increased by 79%.

Freight lifted

When it comes to freight lifted, the total from April 2023 to March 2024 reached 69.0 million tonnes, a 6% reduction from the previous year.

Coal freight lifted experienced a dramatic 39% decline, reaching its lowest value since records began in 1982. The report states that the drop follows the previous year’s stockpiling at major power stations as a contingency for winter power shortages.

Just as with freight moved, a stronger decline can be observed when looking at the first quarters of 2024 and 2023.

Between January and March 2024, 17.1 million tonnes of freight were lifted, marking an 11% decrease from the same quarter the previous year. The reduction was especially pronounced in coal freight, which fell by 31%.

Rail freight punctuality

Freight punctuality, as measured by the Freight Delivery Metric (FDM), stood at 90.3% for the year ending March 2024, a 4.4 percentage point improvement from the previous year.

However, the FDM for the January to March 2024 quarter was 90.4%. Although this is a 1.2 percentage point increase year-on-year, it still represents the second-worst performance for the first quarter of the year since 2013.

Freight delays per 100 train kilometres improved by 3% compared to the previous 12 months, reducing to 10.8 minutes.

As for the first quarter of this year, delays fell by 8% compared to the previous year, averaging 10.1 minutes per 100 train kilometres.

Freight train and vehicle kilometres

Freight train kilometres

The data in the report on freight train kilometres concerns the actual kilometres travelled by freight operators on all mainline infrastructure, terminals and yards.

Freight train kilometres between April 2024 and March 2023 decreased by 1% to 31.44 million kilometres, the lowest since 2010, excluding the pandemic-affected period.

Meanwhile, in the first quarter of 2024, freight train kilometres fell by 6% compared to the previous year​​.

The largest operator, Freightliner Group, accounted for nearly a third of these kilometres.

However, it is important to point out, as is stated in the report, that this figure should not be used as a proxy for market share of volumes due to the variation in freight train distances.

Freight vehicle kilometres

The Office of Rail and Road refers to freight vehicle kilometres as the actual vehicle kilometres travelled by freight operators on all mainline infrastructure, terminals and yards. This is calculated by multiplying the number of rail vehicles (e.g. coaches) by the distance travelled.

For instance, a train with a locomotive and four carriages travelling one kilometre will generate one train kilometre and five vehicle kilometres.

Despite the reduction in train kilometres, freight vehicle kilometres increased slightly year-on-year by 2.5 million to 703.43 million between April 2023 and March 2024. According to the authors of the report, this indicates a shift towards using longer trains.

“Freight vehicle kilometres rose by 2.50 million to 703.43 million between April 2023 and March 2024; a small increase on the 700.94 million from a year ago. Combined with the corresponding drop in train kilometres, this indicates that freight operators are using longer trains to transport their freight,” reads the report.

Again, when it comes to freight vehicle kilometres, Freightliner Group remained the largest contributor, with a 38.9% share​​.

The company nonetheless experienced a decline in its proportion of vehicle kilometres in Q1 2023, as did Direct Rail Services and DB Cargo UK.

Taking lorries off the road

Finally, the number of freight trains run in the year ending March 2024 was 194,896, a 2% decrease from the previous year.

However, rail freight continues to play a significant role in reducing road congestion. The report concludes that 5.65 million lorry journeys were avoided between April 2024 and March 2023 thanks to rail freight, resulting in a reduction of 1.30 billion lorry kilometres.

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