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Column - July 2018 

Sustainable cleaner safer freight distribution by rail

The consumer goods and construction market together now account for almost two thirds of UK rail freight. The construction sector expanded by five per cent last quarter and was nearly 60 per cent up over the previous decade and has a bright future fuelled by the demand for housing and infrastructure development. In London almost half of building materials are delivered by rail with large amounts of industrial waste then being removed by rail; each freight train can carry enough materials to build thirty houses. The consumer market, which has seen consistent growth with a ten per cent increase in the past three years, now makes up 40 per cent of rail freight.  These latest statistics build on the KPMG analysis for 2016 which showed rail freight generated economic benefits for UK Plc of £1.73bn, which included productivity benefits of £1.17bn for Britain’s businesses and externality benefits of £0.56bn, through lower road congestion and environmental gains.

The biggest issue facing rail freight is a shortage of infrastructure capacity so continued Government investment to unblock pinch-points and improve the capability of the Strategic Freight Network, is crucial to satisfy customer demand in both sectors. The strong benefit cost ratios for freight enhancements, typically in the range of 4:1 to 8:1, highlighted in the latest Network Rail Route Strategic Plan, should be factored into investment planning. Targeted rail freight upgrades work; the gauge upgrades out of Southampton Port increased rail’s market share from 29 to 36 per cent within a year and had a benefit-cost ratio of five to one.

So, Freight on Rail is making a strong socio-economic case for continued Government rail freight investment in the Strategic Rail Freight Network, for which no figures have been given as yet for the next five year period from 2019-2024, known as Control Period 6. 

Therefore, we welcome the recognition in the DfTPorts Connectivity Study, published in April,that upgrading the rail freight connections to our ports is critical to providing sustainable efficient freight distribution. The study identifies key routes which need enhancing so we urge the Government to commit funding to these projects to make them happen, We have long argued, that integrated rail and road planning is the best way to make freight distribution more efficient and less polluting so DfT recognition that freight policy needs to be intermodal and its setting up of cross-modal freight teamsareboth positive moves. Government support is key to giving the industry confidence to invest in terminals, wagons, rolling stock and technology as complementary investments by the private sector have supported government investment in the rail freight network. The freight operators have made £2.8bn of investment since 1994 to enhance capacity and improve performance and reliability.  Ports, terminals and other users of rail freight have invested in infrastructure and other capital equipment shown by the new rail freight flows between London Gateway and Duisburg in Germany and Liverpool to Mossend in Scotland. In April, a new weekly intermodal freight servicewas  launchedfrom London Gateway terminal via the Channel Tunnel to Duisburg, Germany, with onward connections to Poland and China. The service will initially operate once a week but has the potential to expand to up to six trains per week if demand is sufficient.

A new rail container service from the Port of Liverpool to Mossend in Scotland is a major boost to Scottish exporters, underpinning Scotland’s manufacturing base, particularly across the food and drink sectors. It is comprised of up to 30 wagons with 40 containers each way per trip and is initially running three days a week.Scottish family-run company Walkers Shortbread, that produces 40,000 tons of their biscuits every year, is a new customer to rail, exporting 700 containers a year to America.  Kinross-shire based Cygnet PG, the largest potato producer in the UK, has also committed to the new service.The move echoes Peel Ports Group’s longstanding commitment to reducing road haulage miles; it launched a rail route between Liverpool and Drax Power Station in 2015, shipping biomass pellets to the site in North Yorkshire.

Veridon’s  new rail hub, is part of the  iPort logistics hub at Doncaster, expected to bring up to 5000 new jobs to the area, is fully operational and is the first inland Strategic rail freight terminal built for 10 years. The terminal connects to the East Coast Main Line and is located next to the M18 close to Sheffield Airport and within two hours of the East Coast’s deep-sea ports.

However, our view that the uncertainty over further electrification schemes, is short-sighted and deeply disappointing has been backed up by the latest National Audit Office (NAO) report, issued at the end of March. Electrification, which is proven technology, increases rail speeds and capacity, reduces maintenance costs as well as reducing carbon dioxide and air pollution. Our view is that the urgent need to decarbonise transport and the unprecedented awareness of the health costs of air pollution mean the Government should revisit that decision and redouble its research into alternatives energy sources for rail freight locomotives.Rail freight could and should also be playing a larger role in reducing NOx and particulate emissions; HGVs account for around 21% of road transport NOx emissions while making up just 5% of vehicle miles 1. There is also growing recognition of the need to tackle freight’s particulate emissions from brake and tyre as well as tail-pipe particulate emissions. Over half of small particle pollution comes from the wear on brake discs and tyres and by throwing up dust from roads; in the case of large HGVs it will be difficult to reduce these emissions.

Road and rail complement each other so the two modes should play to their strengths to provide the most efficient sustainable freight solutions.


1. DfT Freight Carbon Review February 2017

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