Welsh slate lifts the roof on rail freight in the north

Rail freight has another UK first. Traditional Welsh slate aggregate is being transported by rail to Luton, just north of London, in a significant modal shift. The development is a joint initiative between the infrastructure agency Network Rail, construction materials company Breedon, and the Welsh government in Cardiff.

The reintroduction of slate traffic from North Wales has required significant collaboration between agencies, operators and government. The Llandudno Junction freight yard, which had not been used for several years, was brought back to operational life following extensive restoration work. Vegetation removal, track repairs and refurbishment of the switching points and signals were all required to enable train movements.

The first twenty-two box cars operated under successful test in July.

Ideal traffic for rail freight

Welsh slate was traditionally used the world over as a roofing material. It was a mainstay of the Welsh economy. Slate aggregate, discarded in huge quantities as waste at one time, has since found favour as a decorative path and ground cover material.

However, costs associated with imported alternatives, and demand from the construction boom in southeast England, have returned the Welsh slate to economic profitability. Movement in large quantities is ideal traffic for rail freight.

A Welsh passenger train has a companion in the slate train departing Llandudno Junction (Network Rail)

The first train to leave Llandudno Junction freight yard carried twenty-two wagons filled with slate aggregate from local quarries to an aggregates railhead at Luton. Up to 250,000 tonnes of slate waste aggregates are expected to be moved by rail each year from the site to locations around Great Britain.

Llandudno open for business

"We've worked closely with our partners at Breedon and in the Welsh Government to get Llandudno Junction open for business", said Jess Lippett, senior regional freight manager at Network Rail. "The recent slate loading represents the second revenue-earning freight flow to commence on the North Wales coastline in recent months, showing how we can work together to impact the environment and the economy positively."

Graphic by OpenStreetMaps and Simon Walton

Recently, timber extraction by rail began from Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales to a processing plant at Chirk.

The rail facilities at Aberystwyth were also lying disused and required refurbishment. North Wales has been largely devoid of rail freight for many years, basically since the demise of the coal mining industry. In recent decades, Welsh freight traffic has been concentrated around the industrial locations in the south, including oil traffic from Milford Haven, trains serving the steel sector, and intermodal traffic at Wentloog, near Cardiff.

Government and private sector together

"Breedon are delighted to have worked with the Welsh government to develop a high-quality freight facility in North Wales", said Andy Roberts, General Manager at Breedon's Welsh Slate Business. "This will allow slate aggregates to be delivered across the UK sustainably and remove truck movements from the A55 [main road in the region]."

The team watches the first freight train at Breedon Llandudno Jct Jul22 (NR)

The operating partner is a familiar name in the sector. "We're delighted to be transporting Welsh slate from Llandudno", said John Smith, chief executive officer at GB Railfreight. "It is encouraging to see the government [in Wales] and the private sector come together to enable a service that will transport key construction materials, create employment opportunities and drive local growth."

The government in Cardiff has provided match funding to Breedon Group for the enhancements at Llandudno Junction freight sidings. "The Welsh Government recognises the socio-environmental and sustainability benefits which can be achieved through moving goods by rail instead of road", said their statement. "The Freight Facilities Grant is available to assist with the extra costs generally associated with moving freight by rail by offsetting the capital costs of providing rail freight handling facilities.

It can also be used to help companies reinvest in existing rail freight facilities."