Last week a new daily train service started running from Daventry in the Midlands to Grangemouth in Scotland. But though the 6.31am service was packed to the rafters and took a painful eight and a half hours to arrive, there wasn't a word of complaint from the 26 carriages. Because this was the first so-called 'green train' to transport freight up and down the country for Tesco.
Historically, there has been plenty of interest in using rail. Some, notably Asda and Safeway, switched some of their logistics from road to rail years ago to reduce their reliance on the UK's congested roads. Indeed, Asda's response to Tesco's move was that the whole concept was old news. But, until now, no-one has gone the extra mile of introducing a train that not only shifts freight from road to rail but is in itself environmentally friendly.
Tesco launched the £3.2m project in partnership with logistics company Eddie Stobart following three years of trials. The state-of-the-art Class 66 'green train', imported from Canada, is designed to reduce noise and vibration. It is diesel rather than electric-powered so if there is a problem with a particular line the train can switch to an alternative route.
Tesco claims that the new train service, which transports goods from Daventry Rail Freight Terminal (DIRFT) to Scotland, will replace more than 13,000 journeys made by its lorries per year, cutting about 4.5 million road miles and around 6,000 tonnes of CO2 a year.
According to Tesco distribution director Laurie McIlwee, each container can carry more cages than a standard 13m wagon; therefore Tesco should be able to save about 20% on the cost of a load. Overall cost savings based on the environmental benefits are expected to be worth about £3m over the three-year contract period.
"Economically it is better than going via road, operationally we want to be more reliable and using rail allows us to avoid congestion, and, environmentally, using the train for one year is the equivalent of taking our entire fleet off the road for two weeks," says McIlwee.
He adds that the service to Scotland was a natural choice for Tesco as "we've got a big and growing business up there and already had a lot of volume going up".
Initially, the train will take clothing, beer, wines and spirits and "slow-moving groceries". Tesco has also made sure that all the space is utilised. On the outbound journey Tesco will provide 100% of the goods and on the return trip it will occupy 90% of the volume with Coca-Cola Enterprises filling the rest. McIlwee says that the natural extension for the service would be to run it to Inverness.
He's clearly proud of the train's environmental credentials but though this aspect may be new, the use of rail to reduce road miles and carbon dioxide emissions isn't, rivals are quick to point out.
Ian Bowles, head of CSR at Asda, says: "It's good they're doing it, but they're not making a first move. They're waking up to the fact that it makes commercial as well as
Bowles says that since making the switch five years ago, Asda has already saved 20 million road miles. However, he adds, the move to rail is part of a wider reassessment of its transport usage. He points to its £20m import centre at Teesport, near Middlesbrough, which opened in March. It is planning to expand its facilities with a further £5m investment.
He explains: "If we've got lorries on the road, they're moving slowly and the logistics aren't efficient. We've got to move from road to rail, but that's got to be part of a wider strategy. Most products are brought in through southern ports. Now we can bring them in to a northern port."
The move has increased its annual reduction in road miles from four to six million in one fell swoop, he says.
Sainsbury's, too, says that it is increasingly using rail as an alternative to road transport. A spokeswoman says that 83% of its Italian wine is now transported by rail, saving about 543,000 road miles a year, while transporting water from Scotland via rail to Southern depots saves 1.6 million miles a year.
She adds: "We are always looking at new opportunities to use alternatives to road and are currently investigating bringing produce from Spain via train, and moving our current road operation from Stoke to Scotland to rail. We are also starting to transport some of the wine we buy from Germany to the port in Rotterdam by barge."
So Tesco is not the only multiple with freight expectations. That said, it has raised the bar with its hi-tech green import and, as McIlwee quips, "brought a whole new meaning to Tesco Express".n