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This National Lorry Week it's time to talk about rail freight.

National Lorry WeekIt’s National Lorry Week, and we’re calling on the freight industry and the Government to play to the strengths of different transport modes and make sure rail plays its role in the future of freight.

During National Lorry Week, we should not forget the role of rail as part of our distribution solution so that each mode can play to its strengths. This is important as HGVs have much higher adverse impacts on the economy and society in terms of road congestion, crashes, road damage and pollution than rail.  

Rail and road freight complement each other. In fact, rail already provides long distance trunk haul services for many of the products we wear, drive, eat, sit on and use for work. A quarter of all containers imported into the UK are carried by rail and this market can be expanded if the rail network is upgraded. Each year the rail freight industry carries goods worth over £30 billion ranging from high end whiskies and luxury cars to supermarket products, aggregates and cement.

Logistics is changing as there is now more emphasis in reducing freight’s carbon and air pollution footprint making rail all the more important. Cities are looking to smaller vehicles and even bikes to provide lower-emission and safer road deliveries than HGVs. And while rail is never going to be able to deliver to our homes and shops directly it can bring goods straight to the hearts and the edges of cities if the required infrastructure is put in place.

Full train loads of supermarket goods and parcels have been brought into Euston in two separate trials by Colas Rail, showing great potential for rail to improve on the work currently done by HGVs. Then Rail Freightgoods can be delivered by road in electric vehicles. Alternatively, in the places where rail cannot come into the centre of cites, rail-connected terminals on the edge of conurbations can transfer the goods directly to last-mile delivery vehicles.

Frustratingly, because of the lack of a level playing field between road and rail it remains hard for rail and water to compete with lorries. Campaign for Better Transport carried out research 1, using existing Government criteria, to investigate this market distortion. The analysis found that HGVs receive a subsidy of around £6.5 billion per annum and pay less than a third of the costs associated with their activities in terms of road congestion, road collisions, road damage and pollution which have to be picked up by the taxpayer instead. In fact HGVs are six times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal crashes on urban roads. These conclusions are in line with a MDS Transmodal study in 2007 which found a very similar amount of underpayment: £6 billion. 

Worryingly, because of the economic distortion caused by the subsidy given to HGV costs, not only is there is poor economic efficiency but Government funding decisions can be misdirected through unavailability of clear facts. Currently, road haulage is very competitive but not very efficient; almost 30% of HGVs are driving around completely empty and almost half of HGVs are partially loaded either by weight or volume.  

Therefore, it is crucial that the Government recognises the lack of a level playing field in its transport planning and continues to compensate rail in the following ways:  

  • Retention of the rail freight grants beyond March 2016. These grants are only paid for actual containers removed from our roads and represent very good value and are currently supporting less than fifteen per cent of rail traffic
  • A long term stable affordable charging regime which enables direct competition with road freight would allow rail freight to compete more fairly with HGVs.
  • The upgrades to the Strategic Rail Freight network, which are currently on hold, need the go ahead from the Government because extra capacity on key routes to conurbations and ports is urgently needed to cater for the suppressed demand for rail freight. 

A fair deal for rail freight is a win/win for the economy, society and the planet so the important role of rail freight must not be overlooked during National Lorry Week.


1. Metropolitan Transport Research Unit – Heavy Goods Vehicles – do they pay for the damage they cause June 2014


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