Road or Rail? When you have goods to move, which is quickest? UK Magazines Commercial Motor and Railways Illustrated decided to find out once and for all with a novel challenge worthy of Top Gear.
Commercial Motor teamed up with Railways Illustrated to stage a “head to head” challenge pitting a truck against a freight train. The purpose: to prove in real-life operating conditions, which mode of transport could deliver the goods to their destination in the quickest time.
Mercedes-BenzUK laid on a flagship Euro 5 Actros 1860 MegaSpace 4×2 tractor unit, which was up against the latest GM Class 66 Train.
Simultaneously departing from DIRFT (Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal) these two giants of the transport world demonstrated their individual strengths on the route north to Coatbridge Container Terminal, Glasgow.
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With the track clear of the ‘wrong type of leaves’ (for non-UK readers, there have been infamous incidents when trains haven’t been able to run thanks to the worng type of leaves) and traffic running smoothly on the M6, the first gauge of progress came some 13 miles in, when the train passed beneath the motorway moments ahead of the truck. The race was on.
Road transport planners are always in the hands of other road users but there were no accidents or incidents to hold it back and the Actros, its range-topping 16-litre 600bhp governed to a 56 mph top speed, made steady progress, reaching Gretna Green services in four hours, 27 minutes.
That was just three minutes shy of the statutory, four-and-a-half hours maximum driving period. The truck then had to remain parked for 45 minutes, its single driver being more representative of typical truck operation than a double-manned cab.
With CANbus data showing an average 52.4mph and 8.5mpg, the mighty MegaSpace was proving a reliable and economical partner.
Meanwhile, the £2-million train, its 3,245bhp, 139-litre engine capable of 75mph, was returning less than one mile per gallon and was on the second of the three sets of crew it needed for the same trip. Having already had one change of personnel at Crewe, it was forced to stop for pathing at Tebay, before heading on to Carlisle for a third and final crew change.
Some 270 miles in, just south of Moffat where the rail line and M74 Motorway run parallel, Beattock Hill was reckoned by both parties to be the make or break point of the journey. Surely, he who crested first would have gained a winning advantage…
Nervous tension set in as train and truck reached the top side-by-side and the combatants aboard made eye-to-eye contact for the first time.
To reach the finish line the truck would still have to navigate the busy sprawl of Bellshill and the centre of Coatbridge. The train, meanwhile, could peel off, leaving those aboard to enjoy the spectacular Lanarkshire countryside.
So who won?
Well, six hours and 55 minutes after it departed DRIFT Northamptonshire, the Actros arrived at the container terminal gates, the anxious driver nervously asking, “Has the train arrived yet?” Celebrations began when the reply came: “Nope, its still 18 minutes away!”
Commercial MotorManaging Editor Will Shiers, who made the journey aboard the Class 66, told Tachoblog, “I’m thrilled with this result, as it’s a resounding ‘thumbs up’ for road transport.
“This test has shown and proved that not only is road faster than rail, but rail freight couldn’t possibly exist without trucks.”
“When we reached Beattock, some five hours into our journey, I was amazed that we were running side-by-side; you could have thrown a blanket over us.
“It was a nail biting moment for sure, and for a while I feared the train was going to deliver a runaway success.”
Speaking to Tachoblog, Pip Dun,Editor of Railways Illustrated, added, “This test has proved very informative. I’m a huge supporter of both forms of transport and although my heart is with rail, I believe each has its place; indeed, in many ways they compliment each other.
“Seeing the entire journey through the windscreen of the Actros was an interesting experience and something I’ve wanted to do for a number of years. I can now understand some of the challenges the road transport industry faces.”