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Column - April 2010

Government Transport Strategic planning provides opportunity to build low carbon rail freight network.

rail FreightThere has been a sea-change in governmental and public perceptions of the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in order to avoid climate change and that is why rail, as a low carbon energy efficient means of freight distribution, is so important in the context of creating long-term sustainable transport for society.

Rail cannot replace road journeys completely as there is still a need to move goods to and from rail hubs but it can reduce the need for long distance road haulage and it can do this more safely than by road; HGVs are over 3 times1 more likely to be involved in fatal accidents than cars on motorways and A roads due to a combination of size, lack of proper enforcement of drivers hours, vehicle overloading and differing foreign operating standards. 

During the recession, rail freight has increased its market share in deep sea traffic despite the fact that imports over the quay decreased by between 10-20% last year. These figures bear out the Rail Freight Group/Freight Transport Association forecasts, supported by DfT and Network Rail, that indicate that by 2030 rail freight volumes will have more than doubled with intermodal (container) traffic growing five fold by 2030.

Therefore, it is crucial that rail freight is properly evaluated in the national and regional Delivering a Sustainable Transport System studies (DASTS) currently being undertaken by the Department for Transport in conjunction with regional and local authorities.

Consultants carrying out both the national and regional studies need to take into account fully the Government long term vision for rail freight set out in the DfT’s Strategic Rail Freight Network (SFN) which is designed to cater for the forecasted growth in intermodal rail traffic. The SFN will provide a reliable robust strategic network with diversion routes which will connect national major freight routes including links to the ports. The Government has already committed  £220m between 2009 and 2014 to commence the development of the SFN, which we warmly welcome.

The DaSTS process offers an opportunity for continued funding beyond 2014 (NR CP5) which would enable more gauge clearance and capacity enhancements on key SFN routes so that the full benefits of the Strategic Rail Freight Network can be realised. A priority example being the bulk of the capacity upgrades needed on the Felixstowe-Nuneaton route which would mean that 40 million lorry miles a year could be removed from the route.

The key priorities for rail freight are:

  • The realisation of the SFN,
  • Seven day freight railway,
  • Longer and heavier freight trains allowing for 750m long trains to operate as standard on certain routes. 
  • Electrification of some freight routes,
  • Continuation of rail freight grants which recognise the benefits to society and the economy of shifting freight off our congested road network,
  • Land use planning policy needed which allows new interchanges/terminals to be build,
  • Expansion of pan-European flows through the Channel Tunnel.

If the UK is to meet its own legally binding climate change emissions targets, it needs to fully exploit rail freight’s potential to help build a low carbon economy by continuing its political support beyond 2014 which in turn will enable industry to have the confidence to give third party funding.


Philippa Edmunds
Freight on Rail Manager
Members are Direct Rail Services, DB Schenker, Freightliner, ASLEF, RMT, TSSA, UNITE,  Rail Freight Group and Campaign for Better Transport

1. Source: Road Statistics 2008, Tables 3.2 and 3.6, Road Freight Statistics 2008 Section 5, both UK Department for Transport

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