Plans to improve rail freight on London’s railways

Most of us have stood at a station waiting for a train, when a huge freight train rumbles through the station carrying anything from new cars to cargo containers. They’re a fun distraction for the waiting passengers, but also a very serious commercial service for the railway and the companies that depend on those deliveries.

Trains delivering cars. — ianVisits (@ianvisits) February 12, 2019

Around 40% of all aggregates used in London’s construction industry are delivered by rail, taking a lot of heavy goods lorries off the roads, which not only reduces road traffic, but rail is considerably less polluting than road traffic – not just CO2, but also particulates shed by road vehicles and breathed in by pedestrians.

The difficulty is that as rail fright increases, that shifts congestion from the roads to the railways, where rail freight competes with passenger trains for space on the railways. Balancing the two can be difficult. As one rail boss told me a long time ago, if a freight train is delayed, there’s one person complaining, but if a passenger train is delayed, there are hundreds of people complaining.

So Network Rail is looking at what upgrades are needed to keep both freight and passengers moving and to cope with the expected increase in freight traffic. Some of the issues affecting London start far outside the city though. For example, cargo deliveries arriving at Felixstowe and being moved into the centre of the country for distribution sometimes come via London, because the cross-country route via Peterborough is itself full to capacity.

More locally, the London Gateway freight terminal on the Thames is increasing capacity, and all its rail freight movements currently go through London, because there’s no alternative. Short of building an entirely new railway line, what can be done to increase capacity for freight on the railways? A report, the London Rail Freight Strategy looks at what is needed, looking at pinch points and concerns that are affecting rail freight today, and will hold back growth in the future, with a set of recommendations likely to be phased in over the next 30 years.

Schematic map of rail freight routes in London (Not to scale).

Source: Network Rail The key recommendations would see:

Camden Road station

The reinstatement of the third track and a platform on the northern side of Camden Road station, where there used to be a four-track railway between Camden Town and Maiden Lane. Reinstatement of a third platform would enable Platform 2 to be used as a central turnback, with Platform 3 becoming the eastbound line for through London Overground services and the majority of freight.

A turnback platform will also allow future passenger growth to be addressed with peak capacity boosting Stratford-Camden Road service. That would give the railway in Camden as a whole more capacity, but would also almost certainly see the planned Camden Highline at best cut back, or possibly cancelled entirely.

Kensal Green Junction

Another plan would see the Kensal Green junction, which is just outside Willesden Junction station moved eastwards. The junction connects the North London Line to the West Coast Main Line and Wembley Yard, and any westbound freight train must cross over the flat junction to access the City lines towards the West Coast Main Line, a conflicting move with any eastbound London Overground or freight services from Willesden Junction High Level.

Shifting the junction sideways would let them run trains across the junction at higher speeds which means it’s blocked for less time and won’t hold up other services.


Another area that causes delays is the switchover of power supplies on the West London Line (WLL), where the existing overhead cable power supply could be extended south to Shepherd’s Bush Station. At the moment, trains slow down along the track to switch power supplies, but making the switchover at Shepherd’s Bush Station means it can be done when the trains are going to be stationary anyway. The change is estimated to speed up trains along that length collectively by enough to slot two more trains per hour in each direction into the timetable.

There’s also a longer-term proposal to extend the overhead wires further south to Kensington Olympia so that electric hauled freight trains can switch while moving on a level track rather than doing so while going uphill as they would be further north.

Clapham Junction

At Clapham Junction, there is already an existing plan to build an additional bay platform for the use of London Overground WLL services. Effectively a Platform 0 next to the existing London Overground platforms 1 & 2. That’s a relatively modest change as there is already a disused side to Platform 1 that used to have trains but is currently unused.

A new junction would be needed, along with signalling, and the removal of some sheds that occupy the old trackbed. The main benefit is that without Platform 0, the planned increase in London Overground trains would see some of them arriving at Platform 17 instead, and that’s where freight trains pass through the station at the moment. So keeping them over where the other Overground trains are is not just good for passengers, but good for freight.

Weight limits

One of the wider issues which spans many areas are weight restrictions.

Freight trains are heavy, and while most of the network is designed for them, there are places around London where construction supply trains can’t be hauled by the most popular form of fright locomotive. Elsewhere, the heavy axle loadings cause problems with bridges, where trains have to slow down to pass over them. Slower trains means less capacity.

Signalling upgrades

At the moment it’s not possible to run trains with 3-minute gaps between them on parts of the orbital railway lines, so upgrades would be needed, likely to be a switch to ETCS signalling.

More freight yards

Network Rail has identified a number of areas where more space to store trains for loading/unloading and while waiting for track capacity is required.

The key gaps they’ve identified are near Acton and Wembley, and south of the Thames. Finding more space for freight trains to be stored is going to be very difficult in London, but they see opportunities for smaller facilities to be slotted in around the railway in some places.

Plans to improve rail freight on London’s railways

(c) London Rail Freight Strategy summary report There are also a number of other longer-term plans, such as upgrading some of the holding tracks at Stratford, the Nunhead Junction, Longhendge Junction near Battersea, and speed improvements on the GOBLIN branch.

One of the more interesting experiments already underway will see some modified old passenger trains converted into freight, so they can deliver right into the heart of the city. This could see local businesses accepting medium-sized deliveries by train rather than by lorry. A trial between the London Gateway and Liverpool Street station is due this year.

The full report is here

As an aside, the number of times I typed fright instead of freight when writing this is scary.