Following on from my previous suggestion that mainstream ‘green’ goods distribution has no speedy alternative but to rely on transport by train, I think it is interesting to examine possible scenarios.
Indeed, for me there is only one – and that is Freightliner – a (whisper it quietly) nationalised British Rail innovation which is still going – albeit, now inevitably privatised and not in the exact system that was originally envisaged. But that is because it was not commercially successful over certain routes and distances. We are now in the situation were commercial success is unimportant – eliminating carbon emissions is…
Containerisation goes back much further – as one can see from this picture courtesy of Wikipedia, from 1928:
But I think the principle is still good.
So we could have regular routes of timetabled ’empty’ Freightliner flatbed trains on which you could book your (containerised) ‘seat’ for the journey of your choice, much as if you were a passenger.
Now of course if you’re a passenger you may well have to change – for me it always seems to be Clapham Junction, or Birmingham New Street – in order to get to a final destination, so I suggest there will have to be changeover points where two or three trains arrive at a similar time and cranes swap containers between trains during their stops. I actually think that it may well be the existing overnight parcels and pallet networks (think DHL and Palletline as two examples) which would be likely to form the basis of this new network. They have existing hubs which may simply need to be rail connected – or move to rail connections. It could be that while part of the train unloads its containers of parcels the other part is of containers being swapped with other trains. The parcels and pallet networks also have the regular overnight journeys so would have regular bookings on these Freightliner timetabled trains and be likely to form the core of their business. (Currently most railfreight business is trainload freight – multiple wagons of timber, clay or cement for example or of course complete trainloads of Freightliners from ports).
It is likely to mean that most people needing to move goods in any quantity would be minded to move near to a rail goods hub and that is probably going to be an immediate challenge as so much railway former goods land has been built on – but at least this land is often industrial estates so weaving new rail lines around them should be possible.
Then you come to the final mile delivery. Where urban and semi-urban deliveries are required, electric vans should be feasible and indeed are already beginning to be used.
But in order to deliver those big containers we have to hope that the railway hub will be close enough for an electric tractor and flatbed to slowly deliver that container to its destination. It could be that the size of the travelling container might have to be dependent on the distance from the rail hub to the final destination.
So if you are sending large quantities to rural Devon or mid- Wales you might have to divide it into smaller parts in order to ensure delivery. A formula would probably need to be created for every postcode.
And then of course instead of Amazon lockers we would need railway lockers on every railway station in the land to offer an updated Red Star parcel (as it used to be called) timetabled parcel network based on passenger train schedules – because to me at least, it looks as though the ‘zoom’ effect is going to mean passenger journeys themselves are likely to be rather less than currently occur.
I suggest we need urgently to be talking about these things now. The movement of our goods has to be transformed and 30 years will pass in the blink of an eye unless we start planning and discussing now.
The precautionary principle would suggest that we ought not to be relying on something turning up in order to get the technology right but should be capitalising on what we know works – even if previously we discounted it because it wasn’t profitable.
And, by the way, profitable for whom exactly?
We now know for sure that we need goods transport to be profitable for society and the planet.