Construction material for nuclear new build: is rail a viable UK transport solution?

With the UK’s nuclear new build program gathering momentum, attention is now turning not just to what can be done, but how.

15 April 2014

With the UK’s nuclear new build program gathering momentum, attention is now turning not just to what can be done, but how. There are many logistical challenges facing nuclear new build, and the movement of construction materials is a very real one. We explore below the viability of rail as an alternative to road transportation for construction (ie non-radiological) materials, the main advantages, and some other important considerations.

Rail is perfectly suited to the movement of construction materials, allowing for the transportation of heavy and unusual loads which would be difficult or impossible by road. Transporting construction materials for large projects by rail is not a new or novel concept – around 50 per cent of the construction materials required for the London Olympics were transported by rail for example.

Rail is also perceived to have other genuine advantages over road. Rail is: 

  • more reliable due in part to the absence of road congestion and reliability is improving year on year
  • more cost-effective particularly over longer journeys (with cost neutrality generally achieved at around 130 miles)
  • safer with less (virtually zero) accidents/incidents
  • more secure
  • sometimes more customer-focused
  • more sustainable (one tonne of materials transported 88 miles by road produces approximately the same amount of CO2 as one tonne of materials transported 246 miles by rail. Lower CO2 emissions may also give rise to tax advantages).

It is unlikely, however, that rail will provide the complete solution for nuclear ‘new build’ and will likely be used in conjunction with transportation by road and sea. Rail, for example, can only bring materials to the nearest rail terminal (with the remainder of the journey perhaps completed by road), unless new private sidings are constructed (bringing the track and the freight trains directly to site). New sidings represent a significant private investment, although once completed and connected to the mainline, could be maintained by Network Rail (at the site’s cost). Any new sidings to be connected to the mainline must meet the minimum requirements and standards of Network Rail, and Freight Operating Companies (FOCs) have their own technical specification requirements which may also need to be met.

There are a handful of FOCs operating across Great Britain. Unlike passenger services, these are not franchised by geographical location (although some FOCs tend to operate in limited geographical areas). FOCs run freight services under licence from the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR), although it is Network Rail’s responsibility (as owner of the infrastructure) to allocate train paths. Competition with existing passenger services and other FOCs can make getting train paths a tricky and challenging process – the earlier you can engage with FOCs and Network Rail, the better.

It is equally important to engage with FOCs as early as possible to ensure that they have the necessary licences and permits to carry the loads required and access the necessary geographical locations (FOCs may need to pass on additional charges for track and depot access). FOCs will also be able to arrange and advise on available train paths within the operational timetable. Size and weight restrictions on particular routes will need to be considered. There could be further logistical hurdles to overcome in supplying the correct number and type of trains/wagons required at the right times and in the locations needed.

In summary, whilst rail can be a genuine solution to the logistical challenges faced by nuclear new build and there are a number of distinct advantages over road transportation, there are many other relevant considerations from network capacity to ORR licences and access to contend with. For rail to be able to solve these problems and deliver on time, the clear message is to engage fully with FOCs, Network Rail and ORR as early as possible.

For further details please contact Michael Bray or Philip Beer in our specialist Rail sector team

Key contact

Philip Beer

Philip Beer Partner

  • Real Estate
  • Transport
  • Energy and Utilities

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