Those who regularly travel through the Willesden area have no doubt spotted these lumbering yellow giants before. Whether you whiz down the West Coast Main Line, or trundle along the Bakerloo — you've probably found yourself looking up and thinking: what the hell are these things?
The casual observer might assume they are part of some sort of container terminal, and you wouldn't be wrong. However, the more eagle eyed will have realised that these things have been out of action for ages. They don't move an inch. So what gives?
1994 was an exciting time for rail freight — the opening of the Eurotunnel meant that for the first time, goods could be transported to and from the continent via intermodal rail services. It was mooted that 35 freight trains could run on the route per day, amounting to an annual capacity of 10m tonnes per year. It was super efficient too: the intermodal concept meant that containers could be lifted direct from trains and transferred to road vehicles for onward travel, minimising processing times. Of course, there had to be somewhere for this to happen, and thus nine regional freight terminals were born.
Situated slap bang in the middle of industrial north west London, Willesden proved the natural fit for one of these beasts. There was already an existing Freightliner yard here, with direct links to both the West Coast Main Line and West London Lines. Ideally located, the site was upgraded to Euroterminal standard, giving it the chutzpah to handle international freight traffic. Spanning 30 acres, the site was — and still is — characterised by the four yellow container cranes that tower over it, straddling the 13 railway sidings below. At the time, over half of the site was given over to container storage.
The scale of the site matched the ambition for these types of services. In fact, one might be surprised to learn that freight actually beat passengers to it when it came to traversing the channel. The very first freight train departed the Willesden Euroterminal for France in June 1994 — months before the first Eurostar service departed Waterloo that November.
Yet, the Channel Tunnel has never come close to realising its full 10m tonne annual capacity. Recent figures from 2016 show the tunnel as only having shifted a paltry 1m tonnes via rail freight services, down from a peak of 3m in 1997. So where did it all go wrong?
In 2013, Groupe Eurotunnel commissioned a report into the decline of freight traffic via the tunnel, and found a number of attributable causes. Most notably, it found that the market was severely disrupted by illegal immigrants trying to board freight trains headed for the UK. This caused significant delay to services as they awaited inspection by under-resourced French authorities, and even full-scale closure of the tunnel at night when most freight services were scheduled to run. The time-sensitive nature of freight meant that goods were eventually diverted to more reliable and flexible cross-channel routes, leading to a decline in traffic.
There are, however, a number of other contributing factors. Infrastructure, for instance, has always been a major stumbling point for rail freight. Further afield, structural changes in the European manufacturing base proved difficult to adapt to. As industrial sites shifted east, the region's poorly developed rail infrastructure could not be relied on for efficient transportation of goods, as in Western or Central Europe, pointing to a road based solution.
No doubt linked to the aforementioned structural changes, the report also points to a more general decline in rail freight traffic in France as one intrinsically linked to the unpopularity of Eurotunnel freight services.
Domestically, the differences in UK rail infrastructure and lack of available lines means that it is simply more economical to rely on road haulage for the final leg of the journey. For instance, a 2014 report found that the lower UK gauge size (the spacing between tracks) meant that shippers had to use non-standard wagons if they were to move international freight traffic onto the conventional UK rail network, increasing transport costs by €300 per train and reducing revenues by 20%.
Similarly, train lengths vary across the continent — in Italy, trains are limited to 500m long, compared to 750m in France and the UK. This restricts the ability to run direct freight services from Italy to the UK, amounting to a 25% drop in capacity.
Indeed, as traffic dried up, the Willesden Euro-terminal found itself increasingly redundant, and by 2005 it had fallen into disuse. Today, the site is occupied by numerous firms, though working out who actually runs, owns and runs it is a rather messy endeavour.
While Network Rail own the site, they leased it to the Department for Transport (DfT) by way of a 125 year lease way back in April 1994. The site was then sublet to English, Scottish & Welsh Railway (EWS), whose logo can still be seen on some of the container cranes. In 2007, EWS was sold to German railway operator Deutsche Bahn, and was consequently rebranded as DB Schenker in January 2009. Again, the company was rebranded in March 2016 to DB Cargo UK — and that is who runs the site today. They sublet to around 10 different firms for various uses, including Network Rail, who operate their high-output ballast services from the site (these are the bright yellow, industrial looking trains that clean the material beneath the tracks).
Sadly, nobody is making use of those cranes anymore — they only serve to add a lick of colour to the landscape these days. While their rusted state means they are unlikely to ever see use again, the site has been earmarked to assist in the creation of a certain other rail infrastructure project.
High Speed 2 (HS2) has identified Willesden Euroterminal as one of four main construction compounds, including a railhead for the temporary storage, loading, and removal of excavated material. This means that construction material from the new Old Oak Common station (situated adjacent to the site) and various new tunnels in the area will be removed by rail rather than road, at considerable benefit to the environment — up to 13 trains a day are expected, removing hundreds of HGV's from local streets. This is no doubt of great relief to local residents, as HGV movements associated with construction of the project have long been a fear for those who live along the route.
Nowadays, the tunnel is rarely associated with freight movements — it's more weekend jaunts to Paris than containers full of manufactures. However, you might be surprised to learn that the tunnel still manages to shift over 20m tonnes of freight a year — not via dedicated freight trains, but via shuttle services that carry road haulage vehicles. Over the years, the difficulties associated with dedicated rail freight trains have caused them to be pushed aside in favour of these shuttle services.
It's not all doom and gloom for rail freight, though. In a bid to redevelop traffic, Eurotunnel has launched financial incentive scheme, ETICA. Recognising that implementing new freight routes requires an operator to put together a sufficient critical mass of customers to break even, the scheme seeks to reduce the barrier to entry by reducing the cost of new services. By awarding lump sum payments to operators introducing new routes, the hope is that the break even point is reduced to the point where they become financially viable and others are encouraged onto the lines.
Nevertheless, migrant activity continues to hinder the smooth operation of freight services, which were actually seeing growth again until the migrant crisis hit in 2015. In June 2017, Eurotunnel took steps to combat this by beginning installation of a €6.4 million freight train scanner at Calais-Frethun, in a move to slash processing times and increase cross-channel flow. When it comes into service in 2018, it is expected to speed up checks to the tune of several hours each day by allowing up to 30 trains to pass through without stopping.
Clearly confident in their investments, Eurotunnel are expecting the number of freight services to more than double to 5,000 trains a year by 2023, up from 1,797 in 2016. In January 2017, the tunnel even played host to London's first ever freight service from China. So while interest remains, only time will tell whether the railway can offer the kind of reliable, efficient service required by shippers.
As for the Willesden Euroterminal? Just think of it as a monument to the ongoing project of getting Channel Tunnel rail freight off the ground. They'll get there eventually...