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Column - August 2017

Invest in rail freight to reduce road congestion

While this year has been a period of transition for the rail freight industry,consistent expansion in the key emerging consumer and construction rail freight markets with record levels of traffic, demonstrate the potential and demand for rail freight services.

Consumer traffic grew over five per cent in quarter three, compared to last year, and was the highest since quarterly figures were issued in 1998/99. Overall, it has grown by 30 per cent in the last 10 years. There are similar positive figures for the construction sector which has expanded all year and grew by almost seven per cent in quarter three. Construction and consumer freight combined accounted for just over 60 per cent of total freight moved in the quarter. Metals, International, oil and petroleum all grew while coal traffic decreased significantly. Overall, the figures show that the industry is adjusting to the steep decline in coal traffic. In fact, UK rail freight,which has the strongest performance across Europe, has over 86 per cent of freight trains arriving within 15 minutes of booked arrivals.

Rail is a crucial part of the logistics supply chain and is well placed to offer long distance traffic both internationally and in the UK, as the first train exporting goods from the UK to China shows.The DB Cargo UK train was carrying a range of products including include soft drinks, vitamin and pharmaceutical products, baby products and whiskey. This inaugural export train departed just under three months after the first ever import train from China arrived in the UK. The service is part of China's One Belt, One Road programme - reviving the ancient Silk Road trading routes to the West.

The train made the 7,500 mile, three-week-long journey leaving DP Cargo’s World London Gateway rail terminal in South Essex on 10th April going to Yiwu in the Zhe Jiang province in eastern China.  Long distance rail freight is cheaper and less environmentally damaging than air freight and faster than sea freight. 

There are some important statistics in the Government’s Freight Carbon Review, issued in February, which further the case for further government support for rail freight on socio-economic grounds as this DfT quote states shifting freight from road to rail can result in significant CHG emission savings as well as economic and safety co-benefits 1.

Government statistics show that nationally, aquarter of largest HGVs (5+ axles) trips are over 300 kms and a half over 200 km, some of which could be transferred to rail 2.  Long haul HGVs, which at 18 per cent of HGVs, account for 44-46 of GHG emissions 3.Chronic road congestion which undermines productivity and air quality problems make a strong case for rail freight. The latest Government figures show that HGVs are responsible for 21 per cent of NOx emissions while accounting for five per cent of miles driven, while rail produces up to 15 times less NOx emissions than HGVs.4  Highways England figures show that HGVs are responsible for 50% of transport’s nitrogen oxide emissions on the Strategic Road Network.

Road and rail complement each other and should play to their strengths. And rail freight is well placed for long distance trunk haul. And new research by consultants MTRU for Campaign for Better Transport and sponsored by the Department for Transport shows that sending more goods by rail has the potential to dramatically reduce road congestion on some of the country’s busiest trunk roads. The research, looked at the economic benefits of using the railways to solve road congestion and improve productivity. In particular, the research examined the potential of increasing rail freight capacity along four heavily congested freight routes: the A14 between Felixstowe and the Midlands, the A34 from Southampton to the Midlands, and the M6 and M62 motorways. The two A roads have up to 6,500 of the largest HGVs (5 and 6 Axle articulated lorries) on the corridors each day, between 10 per cent and 17 per cent of all traffic, and the M6 motorway has over 13,500 of the largest HGVs a day and on the M62 over 11,000. This represents 10-12 per cent of all traffic on the two motorway sections. These large HGVs  (5 and 6 axle artics) accounted for more than 50% of HGVs averaging 11% of all traffic including cars on the sections of the network studied.

The research found that upgrading existing rail lines, which run parallel to the motorway routes and are currently nearing full capacity, would allow considerable modal shift. This would help road congestion and road reliability - because of the extra road space taken by lorries, transferring 2000 lorry loads a day to rail would be the equivalent of taking 8000 cars off the road.  As more rail freight interchanges become operational there is further scope to transfer traffic to rail. For example, the existing strategic rail freight interchange at Daventry removes more than 23 million HGV miles a year, most of which would otherwise be on trunk roads.

The Government’s own 2014 policy statement on national networks claimed that even doubling rail freight would only reduce road freight by 7% 5 but this latest research demonstrates the importance of analyzing strategic corridors as well as using national averages in transport planning. So we are calling on the Government to use the findings of this research to feed into its future road and rail investment strategies, now in preparation, and in particular to support continued investment in the Strategic Rail Freight Network.  We have long argued, that integrated rail and road planning is the best way to reduce road congestion, collisions and pollution. It shows that on certain strategic transport corridors it is possible to improve road conditions without needing to add more road capacity.So we are pleased with the official response from a DfT which said: "We agree with the Campaign for Better Transport that rail freight offers real benefits for the environment and helps keep bulky loads off of the road network, helping to ease congestion for other motorists.We look forward to using these findings to help inform our coming road and rail strategies and are committed to working with the rail freight industry to support growth of the sector.”

The Government needs to set affordable freight access charges in the forthcoming review in recognition of these socio-economic benefits to avoid gridlock and control air pollution.
Because HGVs only pay around 30% of the congestion, collision, infrastructure damage and pollution they cause it is difficult for rail to compete. Therefore, it is essential that the Government, takes this market distortion between HGVs and rail freight into account in setting freight access charges in the forthcoming review. Otherwise trainloads of freight will be transferred back to road resulting in the taxpayer and the economy having to pick up the bill for loss of productivity due to road congestion, more road fatalities and more air and carbon pollution.


1. DfT Freight Carbon Review February 2017. P43 Key messages

2. DfT CSRGT data.

3. Freight Carbon Review P18 table 1.1, February 2017

4. Freight Carbon Review Febuary 2017

5., pars 2.21

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