The Freightliner initiative

By the early 1960s the writing was clearly on the wall for wagonload traffic and by 1970 almost all the ‘sundries/small’ traffic associated with the London depots had vanished. One of the recommendations of the infamous Beeching 1963 report The Reshaping of British Railways was the setting up of a national network of terminals served by express freightliner trains that would replace the outdated system of wagon loading.

The York Way terminal (also known as Maiden Lane) at King’s Cross was the pioneer depot for what became the Freightliner brand. The first revenue-earning Freightliner trains ran between York Way and Glasgow on 15 November 1965.

Freightliner operations divided into the movement of containers by rail and the transfer of containers at terminals such as York Way (see image, courtesy of SSPL/NRM) to road vehicles for cartage and delivery (C&D) to end customers. C&D was the less profitable and advantageous side for the rail industry, which preferred to spend investment capital on the Freightliner rail-side component and the terminals.

Poor loadings and return on investment drove the government towards promoting open terminals that could be used by private hauliers. The NUR saw this as a threat to the cartage side of the business and the livelihood of the drivers the union represented. After much arm twisting by Barbara Castle, Transport Minister, and assurances on pay and redundancy, they finally accepted the principle of free access to terminals.

The debates that led to the Freightliner operation exposed many of the fault lines of a declining rail business and how to make it profitable:

·       road vs rail – a complex set of political, commercial and union loyalties
·       public vs private operators
·       dispersal of depots vs concentration into a few larger more efficient depots
·       unions vs Railway Board
·       the flexible culture required to make a complex system like Freightliner work to a precise timetable vs a culture of frequent disruption and ‘work to rule’.

The 1968 Transport Act established Freightliner as a separate company from British Rail (BR), operating within the National Freight Corporation. The locomotive traction, terminals and wagons were provided under a lease arrangement by BR, which took ownership of the containers.

It soon became clear that Freightliner’s future lay in developing its core routes, with longer and more frequent trains serving a smaller number of regional terminals. The cull of marginal depots began in 1986 with the closure of King’s Cross, by then handling only a nightly service to and from Edinburgh. The operation gradually concentrated on moving full trainloads of sea containers between a small number of ports and inland distribution terminals.