Rail and barge transportation plays a key role in Lafarge Aggregates & Concrete UK’s commitment to reduce environmental impact
While for most industries the railway and canal transport networks may have declined in importance to a greater or lesser extent, the minerals industry fully embraces both. Of course, gone are the glory days of heavy horses and narrowboats, and the industrial romance of the steam engine exists now purely for tourism, but the modern equivalents of these traditional delivery systems are still ‘en vogue’ for a number of quarry companies.
For Lafarge Aggregates & Concrete UK (LACUK), rail and barge play big parts in how materials are shipped from site to site and from site to customer. As a business which makes operating as sustainably as possible a key priority, transport systems are under constant scrutiny. Any measures which can be taken to reduce impact on the environment, improve efficiency and reduce carbon emissions are embraced.
Rail, especially, is a key delivery method, offering a fast-track approach to large consignments which would otherwise require carriage by hundreds of lorries.
At Mountsorrel granite quarry near Loughborough, in Leicestershire, for instance, more than half of the site’s annual 5 million tonnes output is exported by rail. Drystone aggregate travels by conveyor along a two-mile route to a railhead at Barrow upon Soar before being loaded on to trains destined for depots across the UK. The conveyor follows part of the route of the former private rail network built to transport rock for the Mountsorrel Granite Company, forerunner to Redland and then Lafarge.
Angus Shedden, current quarry manager at Mountsorrel, said: ‘While the rail track itself is disused, it made perfect sense to keep the original transport route and so we have two miles of conveyor between the quarry and the railhead at Barrow. It is a vital route for us, so much so that when a bridge carrying the conveyor needed render replacing and brickwork repointing, we invested £30,000 on remedial works.
‘The Grade II listed 1860 bridge crosses the river Soar at Mountsorrel and, with a span of 90ft, it is still regarded as one of the longest and finest examples of a brick-built, single-span bridge. It was built especially for Mountsorrel Granite Company so they could link the quarry to the mainline at Barrow.
‘It meant Mountsorrel was the first major industrial operation to have its own sidings linked to the main network – a link we are still using today. The railway bridge is not only a historic landmark, but an integral part of our current rail network transportation system, so ensuring its solidity was essential.’
The importance of a good rail delivery network for Mountsorrel in this modern age is further stressed by John Carpenter, LACUK national rail manager.
‘Initially, a lot of quarried material was transported by rail. At Mountsorrel, for instance, rail track was built especially so that more rock could be transported to a wider market,’ he explained.
‘Then the use of rail generally dropped away for a long time, probably because of the improvements in road infrastructure and the fact that a lot of quarry sites were run by small quarry companies, serving only local markets where delivery distances were short.
‘By the 1970s and 80s, when Redland were operating Mountsorrel, production and processing techniques had improved dramatically and demand was at an all-time high. This is when rail was looked at again as a major export avenue. Rail distribution had never stopped at Mountsorrel, but during this era it truly became a ‘superquarry’, producing, at its peak in 1989, some 7.8 million tonnes a year,’ said Mr Carpenter.
‘Clearly, this amount isn’t just going to the local market – a quarry as big and productive as Mountsorrel simply couldn’t survive serving only its surrounding county, so getting it out across the country quickly, in large volumes is key – and that’s where rail comes in.’
Mountsorrel alone serves 17 LACUK sites by rail, moving around 1.5 million tonnes (around a third of its output) each year. Add this to the 1 million tonnes of track ballast moved by Network Rail’s own trains and that increases to at least half of the quarry’s drystone aggregate where the train takes the strain.
Indeed, while LACUK make as much use of the UK’s rail network as possible, the company also supports it with material essential to keep it operational. Crushed granite from Mountsorrel is used as ballast for Network Rail’s train tracks. The rock is compacted under and around the sleepers, ensuring the track remains stable so trains can run smoothly. It also limits weed growth and allows drainage of rain and waste water.
Mountsorrel has, historically, supplied half of the ballast used on the UK’s train tracks, and recently Network Rail agreed a new five-year framework contract with LACUK to continue to provide around 1 million tonnes of ballast a year. Anyone who has every journeyed on a train and looked down at the track might just be gazing at pink granite which has come from Leicestershire.
Meanwhile, in the neighbouring county of Derbyshire, Dowlow Quarry transports out around 500,000 tonnes of limestone by rail each year – accounting for 60% of its drystone movements. Material goes to the North West and to power stations in Nottinghamshire and West Yorkshire.
Sustainability is, of course, one of the main modern reasons for relying on rail, and this is where it comes into its own for LACUK. The past decade has seen major changes in the world of construction, mirroring global concerns about dwindling resources, climate change and habitat destruction. Sustainability is the watchword of the age – and rightly so. Governments and businesses now all realize that unless we plan today for tomorrow, minimizing our impact and preserving environments, the future could be bleak. Moving material by rail or barge is one way in which LACUK can do its bit.
‘Our two primary railheads deal with something like 3 million tonnes of aggregate a year,’ said Mr Carpenter. ‘Trains can range in capacity from 900 tonnes to 1,700 tonnes – that’s major loads in just one go.
‘When you consider that you can get 30 tonnes per load on an artic, and 21 tonnes on an eight-wheeler, that would mean 30 artics and 43 eight-wheelers to deliver just the smallest capacity which we can do by rail.
‘While we are constantly upgrading our road vehicle fleet to try to maximize load capacity while minimizing CO2 emissions, 3 million tonnes is a lot of truck movements and consequent carbon emissions we are taking off the roads each year.’
LACUK are unique in the UK in terms of rail distribution, being the only construction materials company to operate self-discharging trains. Relatively commonplace in the US but rare this side of the Atlantic, these machines were purchased by Redland but have been fully integrated into Lafarge’s transport plan.
All three self-discharge trains are based at Mountsorrel, serving 13 railheads including important sites in Hertfordshire and Norfolk. The novelty of a self-discharge train is, as the name suggests, its ability to offload material without the need for additional infrastructure.
‘It’s an amazingly efficient piece of machinery,’ said Mr Carpenter. ‘As long as there is a siding by the track, we can offload the material into a stockpile; it doesn’t need a pit or machinery to grab it out. The material can then be picked up and taken on to its final destination – generally only a very short distance from the siding.
‘The advantage is that we can deliver closer to where the material is going to be used, saving on time, effort, manpower and lorry movements. For example, from Mountsorrel the self-discharge train runs to Luton. It’s around 70 miles from Loughborough to Luton, so the train has saved many dozens of truck movements travelling that far to offload and then coming back empty, while at Luton the material is only going out to projects in something like a 10-mile radius.’
While rail offers a high-speed service, the other sustainable transport method used by Lafarge is rather more leisurely. Lafarge are the only building materials supplier to retain a water fleet in the north Midlands, and one of only a few commercial companies in the country which use waterways at all.
Barges load up at Besthorpe Quarry, in Nottinghamshire, on the banks of the river Trent, then travel up river to the Lafarge site at Whitwood, near Castleford, in West Yorkshire, where the aggregate is offloaded and distributed to the Leeds and Yorkshire markets. A one-way trip takes around 15h, with loads averaging at between 300 to 400 tonnes.
When the canal fleet was operating at its height, some 230,000 tonnes of material were transported by barge each year. This is much less today (c.80,000 tonnes), one of the main reasons being, somewhat ironically, lower water levels on the Trent – possibly as a result of climate change.
Steve Barker, northern cluster production manager, said: ‘We’ve been ferrying sand and gravel by barge, mainly for the Leeds and Yorkshire ready-mix market, for the last 10 years or so. Aggregate from Besthorpe and the Trent valley is some of the finest quality in the country, so is ideal to send up to Yorkshire where the quality is not as high.
‘The main reason we continue operating the barges is to take lorries off the road, cutting down on wasted mileage with empty return runs and reducing our carbon footprint by cutting CO2 emissions. Besthorpe is ideally located right on the river Trent, which is easily navigable and links up to the canal system in Yorkshire.’
Lafarge own and run one barge of their own, Battlestone, while five independent operators also run vessels, making a total fleet of six. Just two people, a skipper and a skipper’s mate, are required to guide the boat along river and canal, but the timing of the sailings is crucial, as the Trent is a tidal river.
‘There is quite a bit of planning involved,’ said Mr Barker. ‘The skippers try to organize trips when the tide is highest so obviously the water is deepest and we can load more material on to the barge. The heavier the load, the lower the barge lies in the water, so high tides and deep water helps us maximize our loads.
‘It’s a very traditional method of transport and, I suppose, quite novel, and Lafarge have certainly gained some attention because of it. A few years ago Griff Rhys Jones spent a day on Battlestone, travelling up the Trent for an item on a TV series he was doing on waterways. It was Battlestone’s moment of fame, but in the end it was still just a delivery on the river for us.’