Railfreight Distribution


The origins of this Business Sector can be traced back to 1977, when the first air-braked wagons came into service. These were envisaged to replace the existing vacuum-braked fleet which had been in decline since the latter days of steam. To ensure that the presence of air-braked vehicles was well known, British Rail was keen to implement the brand name ‘’Air Braked Freight’’, but after lengthy discussions and board meetings, ‘’Speedlink’’ was finally selected. Speedlink was what could be considered a ‘’traditional’’ freight operation: individual wagons originated from various separate localities and were shunted into a single train. Subsequently, when this full train load reached a ‘’routing point’’, the wagons would again disperse to their separate destinations. This service was faster than existing freights, had a higher haulage capacity, and huge marshalling yards were not pivotal to the operation. Despite the distinctive brand name, Speedlink was still under the auspices of the general ‘’Railfreight’’ division, this of which received its own distinguishing red, yellow and grey livery as part of the sectorisation process of 4th January 1982. Excepting cosmetic re-branding, such as the 1986 emergence of Network SouthEast, the passenger sectors remained unchanged, but significant divisions were to be made as far as Railfreight was concerned. On 15th October 1987, the TrainLoad Business Sectors were formed; these specialised in petroleum, coal, metals and construction. On 10th October of the following year, the operations of Speedlink and Freightliner were merged under the then new brand of ‘’Railfreight Distribution’’. Demarcation of traffic into sectors was undertaken to make the prospect of freight by rail more attractive to potential customers, whilst also improving performance and efficiency. British Rail was also being prepared for the envisaged traffic generated as a result of the Channel Tunnel opening.

The Speedlink service eventually served nineteen cities and Railfreight Distribution’s (RfD) headquarters had settled in ''Tournament House'', at the rear of Paddington station. Subordinate offices were based at the following:

Allerton Dollands Moor Trafford Park
Birmingham Mossend Wakefield
Crewe Saltley Wembley
Derby Tinsley Willesden



Although established to be a profitable venture for BR, Speedlink made considerable losses each year, which saw its total withdrawal in 1991, by which time RfD still had the Freightliner traffic and was also handling general commodity flows. In September 1992, at the Birmingham Exhibition, the Business Sector unveiled its plans to run international freights via the Channel Tunnel, which was planned to open to regular traffic on 6th May 1994. RfD traffic through the Chunnel commenced in June of that year, the sector's usage of it being on the basis of paying yearly guaranteed sums of money to Eurotunnel until 2005, which would total a net figure of £242 million. Forecasts of Chunnel freight traffic had been optimistic and for the financial year ending March 1996, RfD’s accounts indicated a total loss of £64.5 million.



Before looking at the demise of RfD, it is also worth touching on two further freight developments not yet mentioned. As part of the 1987 freight sectorisation, a small, short-lived brand had been launched: Railfreight General. In its lifetime, the sector had a locomotive fleet totalling a mere four, divided among three classes:


·         Class 47: Nos. 47145 & 47588

·         Class 50: No. 50149 (originally No. 50049, now with re-geared bogies and designated as a 50/1)

·         Class 86: No. 86502 (an 86/5 conversion - formerly No. 86222, now re-geared)


Although even boasting its own symbol, the sector was short-lived to the extent that it was disbanded in 1989, its functions being assumed by Railfreight Distribution. The locomotives were dispersed as follows:


·         No. 47145 - transferred to Railfreight Distribution

·         No. 47588 - transferred to Railfreight Distribution

·         No. 50149 - transferred to Network SouthEast and reverted to No. 50049

·         No. 86502 - transferred to InterCity (West Coast) and reverted to No. 86222


Another resultant of the 1987 reorganisation was the creation of a dedicated ‘’Parcels’’ sector, which was literally called just that. However, to provide this sector with a seemingly modern image, it was re-branded as ‘’Rail Express Systems’’ on 11th October 1991.




The sectorisation of 4th January 1982 saw significant divisions in passenger operations, but goods

traffic all came under the ''Railfreight'' auspices. However, this did see the development of a new

colour scheme. This is seen in the picture above, showing No. 47367 ''Kenny Cockbird'' at Immingham

on 5th September 1992. David Glasspool Collection



Commodity demarcations in 1987 saw divisions of motive power and a new generation of attractive

colour schemes. Of those locomotives allocated to Railfreight Distribution, the Class 47s were the

most numerous. Here, No. 47188 is seen at Lincoln Central on 10th April 1991. When Freightliner

became detached from RfD in 1995, No. 47188 was one of a number of the type to transfer over to

the container operation. David Glasspool Collection



The Class 90 originally emerged in 1988 for the InterCity Business Sector, designed to augment the

Class 87 fleet on the West Coast Main Line. Rolling stock modernisation of the East Coast Main Line

ran concurrent with this, which saw a protracted Class 90 building programme over three years: Class

91 assembly was considered more crucial. Later Class 90 builds found themselves absorbed into RfD

and Rail Express Systems (ex-Parcels sector) pools. Over its lifespan, RfD has laid claim to five

varying electric locomotive classes: 85, 86, 87, 90 and 92. The Class 85s were drafted in as a

stop-gap for the delayed Class 90 deliveries. In the picture above, No. 90036 is seen departing

London Euston with a passenger service, on 13th October 2004. Whilst RfD disbanded some

seven years earlier, it still wears the smart two-tone grey colours, complete with symbol and text.

David Glasspool



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