From dusty bin to rail freight as passenger train removes lorries from London’s roads

A passenger train without any seats recently called at Liverpool Street. It's not a trial of a new standing-only train, but a way of delivering cargo freight into city centres.

Inside the gutted train (c) ianVisits Delivering freight into towns by rail isn't new - in fact, until the rise of the motor vehicle and later containerisation of cargo, almost every railway station had freight sidings next to them.

However, most freight on rail today is in sealed containers, and vans often handle the "last mile" delivery from depots to shops, or increasingly direct to homes. However, while the rise of next-day parcel delivery direct to the home or office is a boon for consumers, it's putting pressure on road congestion, so a number of companies are looking at how to reduce the number of vans going door to door in cities. The most common option is to use warehouses in town centres.

Vans deliver to the warehouse, and low-emission cargo bikes and the like handle the last mile from the warehouse to the home. But, could the railway, so used to handling heavy freight step in to deliver the lighter stuff as well? And that's what the rail freight company Varamis Rail[1] is trying to do -- developing in a way a return to the old way of doing things -- trains bringing loosely packed cargo right into the heart of the city, where it can be delivered by low-emission vehicles to their final destinations.

And that's why a former Greater Anglia Class 321 train has had all of its passenger seats ripped out so that it can be transformed into a dedicated cargo freight train and loaded up with industry-standard cargo cages.

Class 321 train at Liverpool Street station (c) ianVisits These roller cages, which most retailers use, are ideal for securely moving medium-sized deliveries, which are often sent to stores by delivery vans. Keeping to the same standard cages makes it much easier for delivery firms to switch from vans to trains.

Using old trains instead of wagons is necessary as, unlike container traffic, the rolling cages used by delivery firms aren't waterproof, so the van, or in this case, the train, needs to be.

Collapsed rolling cages used for moving cargo (c) ianVisits Varamis Rail's converted cargo train was in Liverpool Street a couple of weeks ago to show off what could be done -- and Liverpool Street is a suitable station for this project as there's a taxi rank and road right next to Platform 11 -- so it's possible to bring a freight train into the station and unload it directly into waiting cargo bikes and low-emission vans for the final delivery run. Part of the rationale for the project is to give cargo firms an alternative to lorries on roads, which in London isn't just a congestion problem for other motorists, it's a cost for the freight firm in the form of the congestion charge.

This single Class 321 train can remove 40 to 50 HGVs off the roads, and by delivering the cargo as close as possible to the final destination, it could reduce the cost of localised warehousing for last-mile deliveries. Speaking at the event, TfL's Scott Wilding said that London's population is likely to reach around 9 million by the end of the decade, and more people wanting more stuff means there have to be improvements in how that stuff is delivered to them. Scott Wilding explained that TfL is pretty much at the end of what they can do with the conventional road network to reduce delays for motorists, from improving road junction sizes and improving traffic light signalling.

In terms of individuals, London is already pretty good at reducing private car use, with people using public transport and with more cycle lanes, a sizeable increase in active travel has taken place. These reduce road congestion caused by people, but not for parcels. However, with more deliveries taking place for a growing population, unless alternatives to lorries on roads are found, improvements in road safety might go backwards, but also efforts to reduce air pollution and congestion won't get anywhere.

Steve Evans, founder of XeroE[2], explained that the biggest barrier to their ability to expand the use of electric bikes for last-mile delivery has been getting the goods in from the edge of London warehouses, as electric vans still lack the range and capacity. If, and it's still a bit of an if, freight deliveries can be made by rail directly into the city centre, then that solves the problem. XeroE is already working on developing a containerised cargo bike.

In this system, they can pack a container in the warehouse, ship it by rail, and lift it straight into the waiting cargo bike at the other end to be sent straight out to drop off parcels. As it currently takes about 90 minutes to completely empty the roller cages from the freight train onto the platform, those time savings will also be important.

e-bikes next to Platform 11 to collect deliveries (c) ianVisits Apart from the benefits to London's road traffic users in having fewer lorries on the roads, the project also fits in with ambitions to increase the use of rail for freight.

Network Rail's chairman, Lord Hendy, noted that the government has set a target of growing rail freight by at least 75% by 2050 and that while conventional container bulk will have to make up some of that, they are looking at how they can encourage new freight markets to switch to rail - such as the last-mile delivery market. Commenting on the huge transformation in parcel deliveries to the home, he said "The future is bright for rail freight in a way that maybe wasn't considered 10 or 15 years ago." Varamis Rail is already running a service between Birmingham and Glasgow, with links to Edinburgh down to Doncaster planned for this spring.

A regular service into London should be up and running by the end of this year.

But who would have thought an old Class 321 train once nicknamed the Dusty Bin (after the TV show 3-2-1[3]) would be at the forefront of the rail freight revolution.

This was a first class carriage (c) ianVisits

First class cargo (c) ianVisits

Ramps to move rolling cages on/off the trains (c) ianVisits


  1. ^ Varamis Rail (
  2. ^ XeroE (
  3. ^ 3-2-1 (