Progress made on £42M plan to convert rail route from Channel Tunnel to Wembley for freight

Channel Tunnel infrastructure manager Getlink is pushing forward with a plan to upgrade a route from the tunnel to Wembley to a more modern freight loading gauge.

Getlink wants to convert the route from Dollands Moor, the Channel Tunnel’s freight depot, to Wembley via Maidstone to the gauge of W12, which is the standard across most of Europe, and it believes it can do it for £42M.

Most rail tracks in the UK are W6a gauge, which meets the demand of passenger services at 2.6m and 2.4m height clearance. W9 gauge is also used in the UK and allows for shipping containers of a height of 2.74m and a width of 2.6m to pass through, while W12 – which is used by HS1 - increases the height clearance to 2.9m, still with a width of 2.6 m.

According to Getlink, the main construction works needed to convert the route via Maidstone to W12 include the boring out and squaring off the Saltwood Tunnel near Folkestone by around 50mm, the chamfering of a number of platforms on the route and installation of trackside equipment in certain areas.

Getlink believes the works could be completed in two to three years with an accepted high level of disruption or three to five years with minimal disruption.

Getlink chief corporate and public affairs officer John Keefe said: “This [the conversion to w12] has been seen as a priority for enhancement for the last 30 years since the tunnel was built.

“It keeps coming up in Network Rail studies as one of the top three enhancements but it has never made it to the top of the list to get priority funding.”

Recently, NCE reported on the Network Rail plan to convert this route to freight gauge W9a with minimal intervention for £10M but Getlink is adamant it wants to go the full way and convert it to W12.

Keefe said Network Rail’s transition to Great British Railways (GBR) has offered Getlink renewed hope that the work to convert the route to W12 can take place.

The renewed hope stems from how GBR will slightly alter certain rules around making enhancements to the rail network. One reason that Getlink believes the transition will help its cause is the fact that Network Rail is currently obliged to pay compensation to franchise holders for any traffic disruption, but under GBR it will contract with the private train operators to run trains to specified timetables and fares, as is the case currently with London Overground, meaning the payments will be paid back to government. This has helped Getlink save money with its proposal.

Further to this, a current regulation states that there must be alternative routes to the ones that are being enhanced but under GBR it will recognise High Speed One, which is already gauge W12, as the alternative route, which has not been possible before.

Keefe said: “The argument is being turned around from 'you can't do it because the rules say you can't' to 'let's look at the rules and see if they will be the same rules in the future.'”

A report recently researched by development and transport infrastructure economic consultancy Volterra for Getlink stated that, under the current proposal, the gauge could be upgraded on this route for £42M in direct construction costs and project team fees. These had previously been estimated to be up to £182M.

The report also includes details of converting the route from Dollands Moor to Wembley via Redhill and Tonbridge for £108M but states “this route is only assumed to be required once historic capacity levels have been reached”.

Keefe stated that the need to convert this route to W12 boils down to both economic and decarbonisation incentives.

He said: “Logistics UK say that £250M pounds a day is lost from the UK economy through inefficiencies, through goods not being delivered, through wastage, through driver hour and through trucks being immobile.

“You've already got a very clear, direct comparison [rail freight against road freight]. The argument we're trying to make is that the return on this investment is so obvious and so huge that this is the ideal kind of project to be starting up.”

He continued: “It works on every level. It takes the government forward in terms of green growth as delivering on net zero cannot be done with road freight as the leading means.”

Getlink is now pushing for government to support its plans. It has shown Volterra’s study to ministers within the Department for Transport and has met with transport secretary Mark Harper regarding the plans.

Keefe said: “The argument is clear to everybody, but there's just a gap in financing.

“It's now about how to get around the table and have that discussion where you can see such an obvious return on the investment in such a tight financial situation.

“We completely understand why that is at the moment but that's really where we need the conversation to go or for somebody to step up in government and say here's an obvious project with a short-term return.”

A Department for Transport spokesperson said: “We are committed to growing the international rail freight sector and unlocking the environmental benefits it can bring by reducing congestion on our roads.

“Network Rail is developing a proposal to upgrade the key freight route in Kent from Dollands Moor to Wembley, which could support an increase in Channel Tunnel traffic. We will review these carefully once ready.”

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