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Column - November 2015

Rail freight needs more network capacity to meet the demand

At the Rail Engineers Forum conference in June, the Rail Minister Claire Perry said ‘that rail freight is a real success story’ and highlighted that the industry is worth £1.6 billion per year to the economy. In fact, rail carries goods worth over £30 billion each year ranging from high end whiskies and luxury cars to supermarket products, steel cement and coal. The latest Government figures show consumer traffic, which represents almost a third of traffic, grew 5 per cent last year and has grown by 30% in Tesco train by River Severnthe past ten years and is forecast to grow at 16 per cent annually. And reflecting the recent boom in construction activity, related rail traffic grew 10 per cent last year and is forecast to grow 2.5 per cent per year.

And crucially, the Minister asked what the industry needs from Government to continue to thrive. In answer to this question, a key priority is more network capacity so that rail can meet the growing demands for its services and play its full role in servicing the economy. So, it is vital that continued investment in the Strategic Rail Freight Network (SFN) is prioritised in the current review of Network Rail’s enhancements programme. Upgrades which allow longer heavier trains and increased speeds will also relieve capacity constraints. Key corridor enhancements between conurbations and ports, which are part of the Government agreed programme, are urgently needed so that rail can reduce road congestion, road collisions, road damage and pollution. Rail freight has almost ten times less impacts (ie external costs) than HGVS per tonne carried. That is because, rail is 20 times safer than HGVs according to the ORR and produces 75 per cent less carbon dioxide emissions than the equivalent road journey.  An average freight train can remove 76 HGVs from our roads demonstrating rail’s scope to alleviate road congestion. In fact, on specific routes which typically tend to be more congested because of more long-distance HGV traffic, particularly to and from ports, each single per cent increase in traffic causes several percentage increase in congestion. HGVs occupy considerably more road space than cars, also need longer braking distances and slower to manoeuvre. Therefore HGVs cause more congestion than other traffic because the impact of additional traffic in already congestion conditions is far greater as congestion rises exponentially. In fact, Department for Transport figures state that a modest decrease in traffic generally of around 2%, results in congestion falling by 10% demonstrating the benefits of shifting freight to the railways on corridors where there are rail alternatives.

Targeted Government interventions work. Within a year of the completion of the gauge upgrade out of Southampton port, rail’s market share has increased from 29-36% relieving long distance road congestion on the A34. The opening of the Ipswich Chord enhanced the strategic cross country route from Felixstowe by allowing more freight trains each day to travel on the route between Felixstowe and the West Midlands and the North avoiding Ipswich station which reduces the journey by 20 miles. Thus freeing up capacity for passenger and freight trains on both the cross country and southbound route. Rail already has over a quarter of the traffic out of the port which can only increase once the further planned enhancements are implemented. The latest investments in two new rail mounted gantries at its North Rail terminal by its owners, Hutchisons, have resulted in a 20 per cent increase in rail volumes since 2013: there are now 60 daily trains in and out of the port which services 17 rail destinations.  But, until the branch line between Felixstowe and Ipswich, prioritised by the industry as a key SFN project, is upgraded, no more trains can run from Felixstowe.

So it is vital that there is joined up planning and investment in parallel rail and road corridors by the Government so that investment decisions are made which deliver the best and sustainable freight distribution solutions for the economy and society.

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