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Column - May 2010

Why rail freight?

Road congestionRail freight is a win/win for the economy, environment and society which can help the Government to build a low carbon economy and create the green jobs we all need. The simple statistic which shows that an average freight train can remove 50 HGVs from our roads1 clearly illustrates what rail freight contributes to our economy and society.

The reality is if the country is to achieve the 80% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, the Government has committed itself to, by 2050, freight emissions have to be controlled; rail, which is favoured by the public produces 70%2 less carbon dioxide than the equivalent road journey, can help achieve this. Energy efficiency is directly related to carbon dioxide emissions so rail is far more energy efficient than road and air transport which makes rail an attractive option with price variations and unreliability of energy sources.

Despite the recession and a fall in imports, the latest ORR figures show that intermodal rail freight has increased by 12% in the third quarter of the year ie (October to December 09) compared to the previous year. So despite difficult trading conditions, rail has continued to increase both its market share and actual traffic volumes in container (intermodal) transport.

As Paul Clark, the minister in charge of Logistics said, “The Government’s mantra is modal shift which is good for reducing congestion on British roads3.” A good example of rail’s contribution to logistics is the weekly Stobart rail service, run by DB Schenker, which at 1,100 miles from Valencia to Dagenham is the longest train journey in Europe by a single operator. This service alone which imports fresh Spanish produce in a refrigerated train represents a reduction of 13.7 million kilometres or road journeys and a reduction in CO2 emissions of 8625 tonnes a year. And importantly on the return journey to Spain the train is full of pallets being carried for CHEP ensuring that is no empty running.

Freight on Rail is currently lobbying for retention of the capital grants schemes at current levels and ongoing prioritisation of rail freight schemes from 2014 onwards in the forthcoming spending review so that rail freight volumes can increase.

Capital grants (Freight Facilities Grant (FFGs) remain important in offsetting the initial start up costs of the transfer to rail. Changing restrictions which currently exclude mobile equipment in England and Wales would help the take-up of grants. The industry recognises that securing ongoing investment for rail freight development will be a tough challenge in the wake of recession, but believe it is more important now than ever as freight grants encourage new volumes and particularly retail shippers with high volumes, who perhaps have not used rail before.

Continued investment in the Strategic Rail Freight Network (SFN)beyond 2014 would see the realisation of its full benefits to the economy, the environment and society. The £200m for the SFN committed by the Government from 2009 to 2014, has given industry the confidence to invest and has therefore attracted considerable matched funding from third parties including regional and local authorities. This continued level of ongoing support could deliver enormous benefits to rail freight and help the economy by removing lorries from our congested road network, thus reducing freight’s carbon footprint. On the ground, it would enable more gauge clearance and capacity enhancements on key SFN routes.
In fact, a quarter of what we eat, sit on, drive, work with and wear is transported by rail from the key southern container ports of Southampton and Felixstowe. If the rail network is upgraded rail’s market share could increase to nearer 40% out of Felixstowe, the UK’s biggest container port which already has 28 daily rail services, which would help relieve the congested A14.


1. Network Rail 2009
2. DfT Logistics Perspective Dec 2008 P8section10
3. Source Commercial Motor 010410


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