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Useful Facts and Figures - Environmental Arguments for Rail Freight

FreightlinerTransport is the only sector in which carbon dioxide emissions (CO2) grew between 2012 and 2017 and is responsible for 28 per cent of overall UK carbon dioxide emissions.
HGV engine efficiency has not improved in recent years; CO2 intensity increased by 2.2 per cent due entirely to decreased fleet efficiency in 2017.


Freight is a big CO2 emitter

  • There is a significant opportunity to reduce transport emissions by shifting freight from road vehicles to rail.
  • As rail freight produces 76% less CO2 emissions than the equivalent HGV journey, increasing rail freight is an important part of the DfT’s policy to reduce freight’s emissions and help the UK meet its legally binding Climate Change targets. Source DfT Rail Freight Strategy September 2016
  • The Committee on Climate Change (CCC)  stated in July 2017 that the Department for Transport (DfT) Freight Carbon Review identified ‘little concrete action’ and that the Government should reduce emissions from freight by shifting freight from road to rail.
  • Reducing emissions from road freight is expected to be challenging, confirmed in a report from AECOM: “it will be very difficult to meet the 2050 goals without major reductions in GHG emissions from Heavy Goods Vehicles (HGVs). 1 While electric technology means car emissions can be reduced significantly, current electric technology is not feasible for large HGVs as the batteries would weigh more than the payload of the lorry. 

    Furthermore, while electric technology means car and van emissions can be reduced significantly, the DfT has stated that it expects the existing HGV diesel engine technology to be predominant well into the next decade in its Carbon review in February 2017.
  • The DfTRoad to Zero Strategy of July 2018, banned diesel cars and vans from being sold from  2040onwards but excluded HGVs from the ban.
  • The lack of alignment between Government policies for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and rail freight locomotives disadvantages the latter and will make it harder for the Government to meet its emissions reduction targets.
  • Because, despite the fact that rail freight produces 76% less CO2 emissions than HGVs, diesel-only freight locomotives will be banned from 2040 and yet diesel HGVs will not be banned. Additionally, the Government halted the large scale rail electrification projects despite the fact that electric traction is the proven sustainable alternative to diesel, which is cheaper to maintain and increases capacity.
  • HGVs contribute 17 per cent of surface access CO2 emissions, despite making up only 5 per cent of road vehicles. Source CCC 2018
  • By contrast, the total greenhouse gas emissions from rail (including both freight and passengers combined) are an order of magnitude lower at less than 2% of total UK transport emissions.
  • Energy efficiency is directly related to carbon dioxide emissions, rail is significantly more energy efficient than other modes with the exception of shipping. a tonne of goods can travel 246 miles by rail as opposed to 88 miles by road on a gallon of fuel 
    Source Network Rail Value of Freight July 2010

    1. AECOM report ECO driving for HGVs (December 2016)

    Air Pollution
  • Rail freight can be part of the solution to reduce air pollution. Currently, 40,000 people die prematurely in the UK from diesel fumes wide-spread air quality violations, especially in cities like London and Manchester which are already exceeding their NOX emissions limits.
  • Rail produces 90 per cent less PM10 particulates and up to 15 times less nitrogen dioxide emissions than HGVs for the equivalent journey.
  • HGVs account for around 21% of road transport NOx emissions while making up just 5% of vehicle miles, according to the DfT Freight Carbon Review February 2017. However, due to the increasing uptake of Euro VI truck engines, the Road Haulage Industry estimate that HGVs will account for around 13% of road transport NOx emissions for 2018.


Freight Transport: Average emissions in grams per tonne-kilometre



















PM10 particulate matter of less than 10 microns;
CO carbon monoxide;
NOx oxides of nitrogen;
CO2 emissions
VOC volatile organic compounds.  Source RSSB 2007

  • A shift to rail freight will play an important long-term role in reducing non-exhaust particulates (PMs). While the latest EuroVI engine technology reduces exhaust particulates, non-exhaust particulate pollution from HGV tyres and brakes, which are hard to reduce for trucks which have large ones,will remain a serious problem for which there is no current solution.

  • Non-exhaust particulate emissions will also continue to be a considerable health risk for electric cars and vans, a point which has not been widely acknowledged to date. 
  • Noise Pollution
    Far fewer people negatively impacted by rail noise than road noise.
    DfT stats: only around 40,000 people are impacted by rail noise, but around 700,000 people are impacted by road noise.

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