Robin Gisby, Charterail's managing director, is keen to stress that the company offers full distribution services. "If one day someone wants to send more than can go on a train then it is our problem to carry the balance by road," he admits, "although we are first and foremost a rail freight company."
If necessary, Charterail will even build a railhead at the customer's factory, pick up the product at the end of the working day and transport it by train to the HQ in Cricklewood. The wagons are then converted back to road transport for doorstep delivery. With no stoppages, there is no need for any expensive warehousing of the goods.
The technology which made all of this possible was, however, developed by Tiphook without the aid of a government Section Eight grant, normally given to companies taking freight traffic off the roads and on to rail. "Technically, bi-modalism does not qualify as it uses a combination of road and rail," says Emms. "The criteria behind the grant is complicated." Notably, the Government has provided only £70 million over the past 17 years in Section Eight grants.
Charterail is not the only private rail freight company to take advantage of this new technology. Tiger Rail, a small company based in the South-west, is also investing heavily in bi-modalism, recognising the gap in the market to link that area with the Channel tunnel. Tiger Rail uses its own bi-modal system, called Trailer Train, which has been in operation since 1988, but Bruce Ellis, Tiger Rail's managing director, insists that the adoption of this system was due to commercial, not environmental, pressures.
Tiger Rail's biggest customer is English China Clays but it now has plans to take freight for other manufacturers in the region and expand its network into Scotland. It recently announced its intention to buy two of BR's Speedlink freight routes, with plans to buy another and will use its own wagons, but BR's locomotives and drivers. No doubt Tiger Rail is hoping that Speedlink's customers, such as ICI, BP and the Ministry of Defence, will come with the routes.
"It is surprising how many major retailers are seriously considering rail as an alternative to road," says Gisby, "and it's not just steam age nostalgia. But until now there has not been a mechanism to unlock it." The number of interested parties will no doubt have increased after Transport Secretary Malcolm Rifkind's recent announcements on incentives for business to send freight by rail.
These were no doubt influenced in part by current European Community thinking which is striving to make the national railways aware that they are handling rail traffic, not controlling it. The requirements of the customer should be the prime consideration.
According to Gisby, Charterail intends to be the first to run a bi-modal train through the Channel tunnel. "We can pick up goods in the North-west," he enthuses, "and transport them at 75 miles an hour straight into the tunnel. The alternative is to trundle lorries down to get stuck in traffic jams."
Bi-modalism is not a new concept but the "piggyback" is one of the most efficient so far developed. Charterail is also backing the RoadRailer - a road trailer suspended between rail bogies which can quickly return to road mode. All of the dimensions of the bogies, the height of the trailer and the coupling will be common throughout Europe.
One area completely overlooked by Rifkind in his "transformation of the transport industry" was Britain's long-suffering waterway system, and this is where the UK lags furthest behind the EC. While the plans to join the North Sea with the Black Sea surge ahead with the Rhine/Main/Danube Canal, investment in Britain's inland water has all but dried up. The proposed east coast motorway will be built to service an area already networked with under-used waterways.
The Government may publicise its huge magnanimity when it comes to taking the freight off the roads, but it would seem that it is again concentrating on two basic modes. As with bi-modalism, it may wait until the technology has been developed and the system in place before offering serious assistance. Even then, will it be any more than just a drop in the ocean?
(Joyce Dundas is a freelance writer.)