A guide to moving your goods by rail freight
With a little help from the right partners, your business could access the benefits of sustainable, safe and reliable rail freight. Rail can form part of your transport mix, working harmoniously with road haulage to give your supply chains greater resilience. But where to begin?
Getting your goods onto the railway
Before you get started, it helps to understand the way rail freight works and the main players within it.
We own, develop and operate the infrastructure; the track, bridges, tunnels, viaducts, level crossings, thousands of signals – the traffic lights of the railway – and level crossings, plus around 20 managed stations. We don’t manage the freight trains, which are operated by freight operating companies (FOCs). The freight terminals and depots are typically managed by third-party operators or the FOCs.
The industry is regulated by the Office of Road and Rail (ORR), which, among other things, has the final word in giving businesses long-term access to the track. So, to move your goods by rail you will need to contact a FOC or a third-party logistics operator who may offer multi-modal freight services, i.e. air, shipping, rail and road. See the list of freight operators further down this page.
If you want the FOC to provide services beyond rail haulage, ask them about fuller packages, which might include wagon supply, logistics support and other services. It is up to you whether you want to be involved in the individual elements of a freight service or ask for a one-stop-shop.
Accessing the railway and understanding the costs
There are two ways to get access to the railway for your goods – both will be arranged by the FOC or third-party operator you choose to work with, and they will liaise with their customer service manager in our freight team.
- You can arrange a temporary path – freight operators can bid for paths at short notice, as little as a few days – and we work with timetable planners to accommodate them. This can be a flexible way of getting your freight moving, but there’s no contractual guarantee that the path will remain available over the medium or long term.
- You can apply for an access contract of up to five years – we will work with you and your FOC to negotiate the sale of access rights. Our role is to make sure that the railway is being used most efficiently and fairly between operators. Once we’ve reached an agreement with you, industry consultation takes place and you will submit your track access contract to the ORR for its approval.
So, how much does it cost to move your goods by rail? The charging structure is determined by the ORR – we have a dedicated page on rail freight access charges that will apply until Sunday 31 March 2024.
We try to make it as simple and efficient as possible to support rail access so that the freight on the railway continues to grow. One of the aims of Great British Railways (GBR) is to deliver a more open and coordinated approach to accessing the railway for freight, so that more businesses can benefit from the sustainability of rail.
Knowing Britain’s freight operators and logistics companies
Freight operating companies
The operators currently licensed to provide freight services in Britain include:
- Colas Rail
- DB Cargo UK
- Direct Rail Services
- GB Railfreight
- Freightliner Group
- Hanson & Hall Rail Services Solutions
- Varamis Rail Ltd
- Victa Railfreight
- Rail Operations UK Limited
Some logistics companies buy freight train services between inland terminals and act as ‘aggregators’ – subletting space on their trains to other parties. This may be an option if you wish to move containerised goods by rail.
These logistics companies include:
Finding freight site opportunities
There are hundreds of freight sites with connections to the railway, as well as land in railway industry ownership with the potential for a new connection.
Network Rail sites
We have a range of sites across Britain that could be ideal for linking your business to the rail freight network. To help you find the right one for you, please contact .
Strategic freight sites
Use of a strategic freight site should be arranged with your designated freight haulier – we can provide further advice on how this process works.
In certain locations it is helpful for Freight Operating Companies (FOCs) or freight end-users to use our land to load or unload rail vehicles that are standing on the railway infrastructure – a running line, a freight loop or a siding.
Meeting the rules for movement of dangerous goods
If strict regulations are met, freight trains can carry loads defined as ‘dangerous goods’. We cooperate with freight operators and their customers to advise them on complying with the regulations, so that all reasonable actions are taken for the safe and secure movement of dangerous goods traffic.
Helping Britain decarbonise
Introducing rail freight into your supply chain can make a huge contribution to reducing carbon emissions – and it can happen sooner than you think.
The environmental case stacks up
- Rail freight’s CO₂ emissions are 76 per cent less than road per tonne1.
- In recent years, we have led an initiative to extend the length of freight trains up to 775m. This helps maximise the environmental benefits. One freight operator, states that their longest trains can remove up to 160 Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) journeys from the road2.
- On average, four litres of diesel will move a tonne of goods 246 miles on the railway, but only 88 miles by road.
- More and more freight operators are offering electric locomotives. One rail freight customer, Tarmac, has committed to using 100 per cent renewable fuels like hydro-treated vegetable oil.
- One of our customers has a dedicated rail service between Spain and Britain using temperature-controlled containers carries 35,000 loads of fresh produce like oranges and lemons, cucumbers, peppers and tomatoes. This reduces emissions by around 76 per cent compared to lorries and saves the equivalent of 4,500 tonnes of CO2.
Cleaner air, less road congestion and healthier communities
The socioeconomic benefits of rail freight are also hard to ignore. Compared to cars and lorries, rail produces less harmful emissions like nitrous oxide and particulates. So, when more goods move onto rail, communities can benefit from cleaner air, lower congestion and safer roads.