Photo: Varamis Rail

Varamis Rail Managing Director Phil Read gives the inside track on novel UK rail freight solution

A unique intercity high-speed rail freight service is set to launch its second route in the UK. Is there scope for more growth?

You can read this article in 11 minutes

Major cities across the UK have progressively introduced low-emission, clean air, and congestion zones over time, making it more troublesome and costly to bring goods into urban areas. At the same time, it has been evident that more city dwellers want less HGVs on their roads. This has prompted calls for a shift to rail freight, which, unfortunately, is easier said than done – especially when it comes to urban logistics.

However, one company that believes it has found a potential game-changing solution, at least for light freight and parcels, is Varamis Rail, led by former train driver Phil Read.

Unlike conventional rail freight, which involves goods being pulled by a locomotive, Varamis’ concept utilises repurposed passenger trains that can pull into end-of-the-line stations and drive out in the other opposite direction. The trains can also run on the regular UK passenger network, accessing stations that regular freight trains simply cannot.

Varamis currently runs trains between Birmingham and Glasgow, but is soon set to launch a service into London’s Liverpool Street station. The company also believes its concept is compatible with countless other routes and has the potential to be scaled up significantly.

So how did the idea come about, and how does the novel service actually work in practice? To find out, and discover to what extent repurposed passenger trains transporting light freight and parcels could make urban logistics greener, we spoke to Phil Read, Managing Director of Varamis Rail.

Where the idea came from

Explaining how Varamis Rail was conceived, Read told trans.iNFO:

“Varamis Rail was an idea that I had 5 years ago when I was moving old, redundant trains out of passenger use. They weren’t compliant with modern day regulations for passengers, but they still had 10-15 years of life left in them. They’re fully electric and high speed, and so it was just a very simple concept to take the seats and tables out and replace people with parcels and light freight.”

Read continued:

“The idea was to run freight from the Midlands, which is obviously the heart of the logistics sector in the UK, and move goods to and from Scotland, which can be a difficult place to get to. We’re currently running a high-speed, light-freight service between Birmingham and Glasgow. We do that run in under 4 hours via a fleet of fully-electric trains that use power generated by environmentally sustainable means. So it’s not just zero emission, but it’s very incredibly low carbon intensive too.”

According to Read, Varamis has the means to use 2 trains of 8 carriages for 5 nights a week between Birmingham and Scotland. There is also an option to include a 6th nightly service, too, on Sunday’s.

As referred to earlier, plans are also afoot to run trains between Birmingham and London’s Liverpool station, with those services expected to begin sometime in the next 6 weeks. Once up and running, Read anticipates that total journey times will be around two hours.

Who could benefit from light freight rail transport between city centres?

The rail service Varamis Rail operates is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Hence, what kind of businesses could benefit from moving goods via converted passenger trains?

Read says that the service best lends itself to retailers and parcel carriers. So far, it’s the former that seem to have taken to using the converted trains to transport goods:

“We’re working with a number of high street retailers at present. We do seem to get a little bit more buy in from them mainly due to the sustainable attributes our service can offer,” said Read.

Ben Soames, Head of Logistics at Varamis Rail, told trans.iNFO that the willingness to switch to rail can vary depending on how dedicated companies are to trunking operations.

“I spoke to a parcel carrier but got batted back pretty quickly because switching to rail could potentially disrupt their trunking system. It’s a cultural thing more than anything else. Often, with the retailers, they respond quickly and say, ‘yes, we want this’. A top end retailer, for instance, doesn’t want HGV’s driving all the way up to Scotland. They’re happy for us to transport it there and have 2 vehicles based in Scotland delivering the re-supply, instead of their incumbent system, offering a far greener cost effective solution.

Read adds that the retailers also appear keen to meet their ESG demands, which makes them more open to the idea of intercity rail freight.

However, Read is still optimistic that more parcels will be transported on Varamis’ trains in the future. He notes that the parcel carriers have the volumes, and stresses that the site Varamis uses at Birmingham International rail station is a former Red Star parcels facility, while the company’s Mossend site near Glasgow was originally built with parcel movements in mind.

Roll cages vs pallets

One of the big calls Varamis had to make was how goods would be moved on and off the converted passenger trains, which have the equivalent capacity of 12 standard HGV trailers.

It goes without saying that freight is traditionally put on pallets for good reason, and shippers are very much geared up for this. Despite this, Read and his team opted to go with roll cages instead.

According to the Varamis Rail Managing Director, the roll cages suit the company’s operations due to the ease at which goods can be moved on and off trains and around depots. The roll cages also maximise cubic full on the train, while retailers, a target segment for Varamis, are familiar with the use of roll cages too.

“We’re always approached about pallets, which hauliers love because they’re a very convenient and efficient way of moving goods on and off of vehicles in locations that can predominantly cater for them. We, however, prefer roll cages. We use standard supermarket roll cages or jumbo roll cages, something that we can move around the depots that we’ve got in Birmingham and Scotland. We can carry around 400 of these cages on an 8 car train,” Read told trans.iNFO.

Photo: Varamis Rail

Is there potential for similar services on other routes?

During our discussion, Read stressed that Varamis are still in the process of getting the word out about its unique offering, and admitted that capacity utilisation, although improving, is not quite at the desired level yet.

However, Read expressed confidence that the scope for growth is there.

“We’ve been able to find the capacity in the national passenger train timetable. Our trains can integrate with passenger trains because of the speeds they reach. So we’ve been able to find additional capacity in the timetabling system that traditional freight can’t. There’s plenty of opportunity there to be taken on other parts of the network,” said the Varamis Rail founder.

Read added:

“The west coast is where we started because that’s where most of the flows are. Once we hit London this year, it’s our ambition to go up the east coast next year to serve the likes of Doncaster, Newcastle and Edinburgh. Then there’s other stations we could potentially serve in London, like London Euston, London King’s Cross, Liverpool street and Waterloo. There’s sites on the docks at Tilbury as well. Ultimately, the aim would be to create a circular network around the UK from Glasgow on the west coast via Birmingham to London, and then via the east coast back via Newcastle and Edinburgh.”

Naturally, in order to bring about that growth, more trains will be required.

Read says Varamis purchased 10 trains last year, half of which have been converted. He also maintains there are other rolling stock purchasing opportunities available if required.

On top of this, Varamis has found a site from which it will be able to carry out train conversions and conduct maintenance at the turn of the year.

Track limitations not a concern

Varamis prefers electric-powered trains as they naturally offer better emissions reductions.

The company nonetheless points out that there are lines on the network where trains using alternative energy sources would be required. Bristol-Birmingham and Edinburgh-Aberdeen are two notable examples here.

Even so, Read feels there is plenty of scope within the existing electrified UK train network:

“The railway gets a bit of a bashing sometimes; people say there’s not that much electrification. I think about 40% of the network is electric, but the UK has around about 9,000 miles of track. So if 40% of that is electrified, you’re looking at probably 4,000 miles of electrified railway in the UK, which is pretty substantial,” Varamis Rail’s Managing Director told trans.iNFO.

Cross border ambitions

Looking further forward, Varamis Rail’s proposition document from April of this year even invisions plans to move light freight and parcels between the UK and Europe. The document proposes the use of the Siemens Velaro e320 train, used for Eurostar services, as a potential candidate to be converted for freight transportation.

“The Velaro e320 can be built in a variety of different multiple formations. With a potential working space of 960m³ per 8-car train, this represents an increase of 55% when compared to the original Class 321 trains we started our operations with in 2022. As well as high-speed rail networks, these trains will traverse traditional UK high-speed and commuter lines, making them incredibly adaptable to serve all areas of UK and Europe,” says the company.