In an attempt to drive sustainability some retailers are switching their distribution from road to rail. But how effective is the switch?

Why are we talking about this now?

Marks & Spencer is switching a chunk of distribution from road to rail as part of its Plan A sustainability programme. M&S will transport more than 300,000 general merchandise products per week by train, reducing carbon emissions by more than 800 tonnes a year.

What is the commercial impact?

M&S says it will save money and time as well as reduce the environmental impact of distribution. M&S has frequently pointed out that its sustainability programme brings financial benefits, for instance, through improved fuel efficiency. Earlier this month, chairman Sir Stuart Rose said: “By making Plan A profitable, we’ve proved that doing the right thing can be good for business as well as being good for the environment, suppliers, employees and customers.”

Do other retailers distribute by train?

Yes, Asda and Tesco both transport some products by train in the UK. Asda moves goods between its national distribution centre at Magna Park to Grangemouth in Scotland. Tesco has also used the transport method internationally. The top grocer struck an agreement with freight firm Stobart to import fresh produce, such as oranges, from Valencia in Spain - a 1,100-mile journey. The service was reported to have reduced carbon emissions by 8,625 tonnes a year.

How will the M&S project work?

Once fully up and running, goods will be picked up by road from the retailer’s Midlands distribution centres in Coventry, Lutterworth and Leicester and transported to the Daventry rail freight terminal. They will then travel 350 miles by train to Grangemouth, where they will be delivered to M&S’s regional distribution centre near Glasgow and on to shops. The retailer expects to move 25 containers a week.

M&S already moves beers, wines and spirits by rail from Daventry to Scotland and aims to open its first distribution centre with a rail terminal by 2012. The retailer has conditionally agreed a lease on a 900,000 sq ft warehouse in the East Midlands Distribution Centre, which will include a rail link.

How easy is it to switch from road to rail?

There can be challenges. M&S and its logistics partner DHL had to come up with a bespoke method of transporting hanging garments by rail - a solution funded by the retailer’s Plan A Innovation Fund. Similarly, Tesco’s Valencia train was refrigerated, and monitored remotely to ensure that the fresh produce arrived in the best condition.