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Rail's role in the supermarket supply chain

Asda low carbon trainThe rail freight sector is vital to the competitiveness of the UK economy and is an intrinsic part of our everyday lives without many of us realising it. Rail freight now contributes an estimated £1.6 billion worth of benefits to Britain's economy every year, according to the Rail Delivery Group.

A quarter of all containers imported into the UK are carried by rail so the likelihood is that a quarter of the clothes, computer equipment, washing machines and domestic household products are carried by rail during their journey. People do not see that the goods in containers are destined for our supermarkets.

Rail and road complement each other and rail is well placed to provide the long distance trunk haul between distribution hubs with road supplying the local leg to supermarkets. According to the Freight Transport Association, road congestion costs the UK £24 billion each year; rail freight removes 1.6 billion HGV kilometres a year. More cities are using consolidation centres on the edge of conurbations to control air pollution, by using low emissions electric vehicles for the final mile delivery. This trend Photograph: NewsTeam Internationalwill mean that it is becoming more viable for rail to supply the long distance movements as road has to tranship as well as rail at this juncture. 

A growing number of supermarkets including Tesco, Asda, Marks and Spencer and the Co-operative Society are using rail as part of their logistics chain because it offers a reliable alternative to road.

Asda, which started using rail in 2001, is in partnership with the Malcolm Group providing a daily service connecting the Asda National Distribution Centre at Magna Park to the Asda RDC in Grangemouth, a distance of 550 km. The rail haulage for this flow is provided by DB Schenker Rail (UK) Limited as part of their operating contract with the Malcolm Group. Magna Park is 15 km away from the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal, and the Grangemouth RDC is about 2 km from the destination terminal. Tesco has a large rail connected terminal at Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal.

Rail freightFor example, Freightliner intermodal trains carry a variety of supermarket food cargoes ranging from meat, avocado, chicken products, tea and coffee as well as clothing, general merchandise and white goods to various destinations.

There has been a sea-change in governmental, industry and public perceptions of the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in order to avoid climate change and that is why rail, as a low carbon energy efficient means of freight distribution, is so important in the context of creating long-term sustainable transport for society. Rail produces 70% less carbon dioxide emissions than HGVs for the equivalent journey. Rail is also safer than HGVs which are involved in over half fatal collisions even though they only make up 11 per cent of traffic on motorways. 

But supermarkets also choose rail because of its economic benefits. The simple statistic which shows that an average freight train can remove 60 long distance HGVs from our roads clearly illustrates what rail freight contributes to our economy and society. Road congestion does not just reduce speeds, it also reduces reliability since a congested road is more vulnerable to disruption forcing hauliers to build-in “recovery time” to their journeys to ensure right-time arrival every time. This in turn reduces productivity and adds cost.

Rail freightPhilippa Edmunds, Freight on Rail Manager said “It remains hard for rail and water to compete with HGVs because of market distortion. Using the latest Government figures, research carried out for Campaign for Better Transport shows that HGVs are paying less than a third of the costs they impose on society in terms of congestion, road crashes, road damage and pollution. That is why it is crucial that the Government supports rail freight which has far lower impacts on society, and is an important part of the logistics mix.”


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