Feature: How commercial vehicles support our rail and air networks

06 September 2017

“Backbone of Britain” is arguably the most memorable commercial vehicle slogan of all time. Ford famously used it to describe the Transit in a 1999 advertising campaign, and as fitting as it was for the UK’s best-selling van, it’s just as applicable in other corners of the CV world, including those serving other transport industries.

The country’s rail and air networks are utterly dependent on CVs to keep them operational, and they play pivotal roles behind the scenes. Indeed, the ‘transport-to-transport’ sector is a burgeoning area of the CV market, from complete vehicles through to conversions and components.

One of the biggest customers in the sector is the UK’s rail operator, Network Rail, which has a commercial vehicle fleet of over 5,000, rendering it among the 10 largest fleets in the country. The majority are vans, though it also includes a number of HGVs, 4x4s – and even electric people carriers.

Name a major CV manufacturer and chances are, you’ll find its vehicles on Network Rail’s fleet, but their function varies dramatically. Vans make up the bulk of it; Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles, for example, supplied 312 vans and pick-ups to the organisation in 2015, which were dispatched to engineers tasked with maintaining over 20,000 miles of track.

A great deal of vehicles employed by the railways require some degree of modification, road-rail vehicles (RRVs) being obvious examples. These typically take the form of conventional road vehicles – such as pick-ups, vans, or lorries – retrofitted with flanged steel wheels to allow them to run on the track, usually for engineering purposes. The idea is that they can be driven as close as possible to the site on the public highway, then make the final leg on the track itself.

Among the RRVs that Network Rail has used in recent times include Iveco Daily 4x4s, based on the 5.5-tonne crew cab platform. The firm added 29 to its fleet in 2013 for transporting up to seven crew and equipment such as cranes and cable drum dispensers for general maintenance and track inspections. The Dailys were also fitted with floodlights, to allow engineers to conduct work in dim conditions, and underwent a 100-hour testing process prior to starting work, to prove they could move backwards and forwards along the track; travel over switches, crosses and high check rails; effectively transition from the road to the track and brake safely on the rails all weathers.

A byword for rugged graft, the Mercedes-Benz Unimog has also been put to use on the railways. Ayrshire-based maintenance contractor McCulloch Rail is among the latest engineering firms to have employed the Unimog, after it added a 13-tonne example, converted to RRV specification, to its fleet in May this year, to tackle track maintenance.

Commercials are also quietly making other transport industries a little more environmentally friendly, as 20 plug-in hybrid versions of Ford’s aforementioned Transit, specifically the mid-sized Custom model, are about to embark on a year-long trial in London. The vans will be put to work on a variety of different fleets, to assess their viability to businesses as part of efforts to cut emissions in their inner-city operations, before the manufacturer goes ahead with full-scale production in 2019.

Among the companies confirmed to participate in the trial are Clancy Plant and Transport for London (TfL). The former specialises in traffic management for the service industries and commercial vehicle provision to sectors such as utilities, rail, civil engineering and house building, among other areas, while TfL’s role in running the capital’s buses, underground and overground trains, taxis, cycling provision and river services – is well documented.

While you might whizz past an at-work vehicle on the train, you can’t fail to miss them at an airport, and a quick glance out the departure lounge window reveals a little of just how reliant air travel is on ground support vehicles.

The number of different CVs required to ensure smooth air travel is daunting. Tugs, tractors, refuelers, ground power units, container loaders, transporters, air start units, catering vehicles and belt loaders are just a few of the vehicles between terminal and take-off, on which airports permanently rely.

“Essentially, our Scania trucks help us do our job, which is to keep the airport operational,” said Stansted airport’s Airside Operations Duty Manager, Giles Peeters, after recently taking a Scania/Schmidt combination sweeper to its airside sweeping and scrubbing fleet. “London Stansted took delivery of its first Scania vehicle back in the year 2000 [and] their reliability has proved to be exceptional over the years, and their ease of use, together with the commonality of controls between the various models types in the fleet, make them a popular choice with our operators.”

There’s also the wider issue of getting travellers to and from the airport. Coach operators such as National Express and Megabus ferry passengers along the motorways every day, while local buses and airport hotel hopper services pick up the slack at a regional level.

There’s a lot more to it than shepherding passengers, though. Aside from the regular flow of HGVs to and from terminals, the need to shift cargo has caused rental companies to offer more than just holiday transport. In March this year, Europcar opened a commercial vehicle supersite at Heathrow, which is said to offer “standard short wheelbase to 4×4 pickups and crew vans and chapter eight vehicles” on a four-hour turnaround to businesses operating near Britain’s busiest airport.

Though heavily reliant on CVs, airports also lend themselves well to adopting electric alternatives, as many on and off-site vehicles operate on short or repetitive routes. Speaking to Transport News Brief earlier this year, Matt Horton, Chief Commercial Officer at US-based electric bus specialist Proterra, described airports as among the ideal locations for opportunity charging bus routes, whereby the vehicle is charged at frequent intervals throughout its journey.

“What we have found is that the best use cases for en-route [opportunity] charging tend to be situations like airports, where the buses will follow the same route for hours on end, and they’re generally very short routes. Dense urban areas downtown or airport style circulator routes tend to be the best shape for en-route charging.”