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Column - September 2019

Multimodal options are key to making freight fit for the future.

Good news for rail construction traffic
The latest Office of Rail and Road annual rail freight figures, issued on 6 June, show that construction traffic grew by five per cent.The sector has seen consistent growth over the past five years and now accounts for a quarter of rail freight traffic. Already almost half of construction materials delivered into London are carried by rail, with each train carrying enough materials to build 30 houses 1.

Rail can deliver construction materials in a safer, cleaner way whilst helping reduce congestion on our motorways.That is why the completion of the £18m project at Buxton in Derbyshire is so important as it allows more building materials to be carried from quarries to Manchester and London. The sidings’ extension will allow 750 metre trains instead of 550 metres and increase the capacity of each service train by a third to 2,500 tonnes of material. The Bootle line branch upgrade to Liverpool, due to be finished later this year, will enable more trains out of Liverpool. The nearby opening of the Halton curve last month transformedpassenger and freight rail connections between North Wales and the Wirral Peninsula.

Rail freight is key to meeting net zero emissions targets
Two recent key reports, from the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) and the Committee on Climate Change, highlight the urgency with which transport must reduce its emissions. Rail freight, which produces 76 per cent less carbon dioxide emissions than HGVs for the equivalent journey, has a key role to play, and its environmental benefits can be maximised by electrification. Therecent NIC report, Better delivery: the challenge for freight,stated that “electrification could turn out to be cheaper and quicker [than other approaches], improving network efficiency and providing wider benefits for passenger services”. This view is backed up by the recent Committee on Climate Change Net Zero report2 which also supported a rolling programme of rail electrification.

Rail FreightElectric locomotives are not only cleaner than their diesel counterparts, they are also cheaper to produce and maintain, more reliable and more efficient, converting more of the energy consumed into locomotion. Industry expert Julian Worth makes the case for a re-wiring of around 320 key miles over a ten year period which could see two thirds of rail freight moved by electric traction3 by 2033.

The reality is that building both rail and road infrastructure is expensive and disruptive. It is important that rail and road freight are treated fairly; both sectors can be decarbonised by 2050 as long as the Government has a clear framework for doing so. At the moment rail freight has a diesel-only ban from 2040, while HGVs only have a voluntary target to reduce carbon emisions by 15 per cent by 2025 but no date for diesel-only ending4.The NIC acknowledges that Government investment will be needed if the rail industry is to decarbonise by 2050 and recommends a full strategy for reaching this goal.

Government’s mode shift grants play a vital role
The Department for Transport’s Rail Freight Strategyof September 2016recognises“the positive benefits of rail freight for the UK – including its environmental and air quality benefits relative to road freight and its impact on reducing road congestion.” These benefits are not currently recognised in the track access charging regime.So the continuation of the DfT mode shift grants from April 2020is crucial to compensate rail for the lack of parity with HGVs. The grantssupport the transfer of freight to railas part of a suite of integrated freight policy options. Theyhelp the different modes to play to their strengths to maintain a robust, resilient supply chain by offering choice and reducing road congestion, road collisions and pollution.The grants scheme has been instrumental in the growth of domestic services including for some of the UK’s major retailers who are actively looking to increase their use of rail as part of their supply chains, as well as supporting rail services from ports all across the UK. Container traffic increased five per cent over the past five years.

The scheme is risk adjusted as grants are only awarded for actual containers removed from roads so it represent excellent value for money for taxpayers with a current average value of around 6:1. In 2018/19 the scheme supports removing the equivalent of 840,000 HGV journeys from some of the most congested roadssuch as the A14, A34 and the M6 each year.The total budget has reduced from around £38m 15 years ago to £16 million. Any further budget reduction of the scheme would abruptly force back onto the roads significant rail flows and customers would lose confidence in investing in the rail freight sector.  Estimates indicate that on flows to the Midlands, around 250,000 containers would shift back to road with further knock-on effects on other traffic.Given the highly competitive nature of UK logistics, rail freight would struggle to compete with HGVs in the absence of these grants. Fuel duty for road vehicles has been frozen since 2011whereas rail freightaccess charges have gone up 27 per cent in the same period.

Efficiency of rail freight is highlighted
The industry continues to investin longer trains with more efficient wagon configurations to make the sector more productive.Haulage by rail is more efficient than by road: on average a gallon of fuel will move a tonne of goods 246 miles on the railway but only 88 miles by road.5 Compared to the road network, the rail network is over twice as reliable with 4.4 seconds per mile delay on average on the rail network compared to 9.4 seconds per mile on the strategic road network6

The NIC is right however to stress the crucial role the Government has in providing up-to-date rail versus road comparative data to inform its own decisions about infrastructure investment.

Overall, the NIC Freight Report, an important document for the sector,outlines the role central Government must play in supporting the sector but the fact that rail and road can complement each other as part of a robust distribution system did not get the attention it deserves.


1. Mineral Products Association, 2016

2. “Rail electrification should be planned on a rolling basis to keep costs low”.


4. Source DfTRoad to Zero July 2018

5. Source Value and importance of rail freight Network Rail 2013 

6. Source rail data from NR and road data from Highways England 2018 Rail Freight working for Britain, June p13

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