‘Governments everywhere are currently designing their economic recovery packages, they can stick with the status quo, bailing out high carbon, environmentally damaging industries and locking in decades of emissions, or they can choose to make environmental sustainability and resilience the lens through which we map out our recovery.’

So said Lord Goldsmith, Minister for Pacific and the Environment at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), on how the UK can build a clean and resilient recovery from Covid-19 (source: Gov.uk) back in July.

In September Network Rail released its Sustainability Strategy, which aims to put rail at the heart of green economic recovery and growth.

Then in October the RSSB launched the new Rail Technical Strategy, which prioritized a fully decarbonised and energy efficient railway as one of its five functional priorities.

All of the above was predicated in June last year by the Government committing to achieving net zero carbon gas emissions by 2050, and the Paris Climate Conference of 2015 setting a global climate change agreement.

The message is irrefutably that as a nation we need to decarbonize and become more energy efficient, and that rail plays a pivotal role in helping us achieve this.

Moving materials by rail

We all know that rail, and rail freight, is lauded for the environmental efficiency it provides compared against all other modes of powered transport. It is also widely acknowledged that the rail freight sector has been one of the heroes throughout the pandemic: keeping construction materials and vital consumer supplies moving throughout lockdown.

It should not be unreasonable to expect, as the benefits of rail freight are reflected in national and international policy, that more is being done to ensure, as opposed to encourage, modal shift. Specifically, that it is ensured that as much as possible is transported by rail rather than by air or road.

In this article I will discuss this expectation, from the angle of why more should be done to support modal shift to achieve decarbonisation targets, and why decarbonization is about more than fuel efficiency and seeking alternative fuels, and where maybe political rhetoric falls short of economic reality.

Why we need modal shift to realize the decarbonization agenda

Maggie Simpson, Director General of the Rail Freight Group is perhaps the strongest voice championing modal shift in the UK.

Simpson argues that the most important thing we can do to help achieve decarbonization targets is to ensure the modal shift to rail freight, explaining that ‘with today’s traction mix we are making 76 per cent less CO2 than if we were to move goods by HGV … the longer and better loaded our trains, the better that statistic is. Driving modal shift is imperative to everything that we do as an industry and that includes making sure we have the capacity on the network for growth and that we influence reform accordingly.. With the right support from Government we are ready to help to step up to help the UK and to drive these strategic priorities’

We are well aware that the UK rolling stock market has seen a massive influx of new vehicles over the past few years, and that a considerable amount of these vehicles are bi-mode or electric. Huge amounts of research and investment has also gone into battery and hydrogen technology. As a result, the ORR reports that CO2 emissions for passenger trains have fallen to their lowest levels per passenger km (35.1g CO2e) since the comparable time series started in 2011-12.

Considering rail freight’s eco-credentials, it is disheartening to learn that for the same time period, freight CO2 emissions have increased to their highest levels (27.5g CO2e per tonne km) and that diesel usage has increased whilst electricity usage has fallen by 6.3 per cent. Naturally some of this will be due to any increase in the use of rail freight, but these statistics, taken at face value suggest that whilst rail freight might be a more environmentally friendly option compared to road or air, that this advantage might be at risk.

On the topic of building back better, and the part freight could take in moving forward Simpson put forward the suggestion that ‘we need capacity for growth’ and went on to ask ‘how can we rebalance demand if passenger numbers remain suppressed for some time? [Rail freight wants] to be on inter-city lines because we are taking goods into cities. How can we improve things so we aren’t sat in loops or losing other time that eats away at our productivity?’

And herein lies a problem: freight must jostle for position against passenger traffic, to take inefficient routes or patterns, and that compared to the passenger rolling stock market there has not been an equitable level of investment. In the context of Net Zero Simpson states that: ‘we need now to be starting that narrative. We want to be building the case to buy new freight locomotives in ten or 15-years’ time and we want them to be electrically enabled.’

Regardless of traction type, Rail Freight Forward (RFF), a coalition of European rail freight companies, claims that rail freight has a ‘six-times lower specific energy consumption’ compared to road, which ‘translates into six-times lower external costs compared with road regardless of the energy source’.

Not all freight can be moved by rail, but the optimal relationship between modes must be discovered and encouraged if not mandated. But we operate in a free market, so mandating is not really an option. Add to that the fact that the highways and automotive sectors each are arguably more agile and more open to innovation, and the rail freight market’s difficulty in encouraging modal shift is worsened. In its white paper ‘30 by 2030’ the RFF shares the concerning opinion that rail freight will struggle to maintain its current modal share of 18 per cent (in the EU) and that this is due to shifts in general logistic trends and the fact that there is a consistently ‘high intensity of road innovation’.

Whilst RFF focuses on the European network, it cites UK figures within it research and draws many parallels, parallels which were echoed recently by the Rail Sector Deal’s SME challenge ‘Decarbonising Rail Freight’ that was launched on the 21st October. During the launch event it was argued that road is winning over rail on efficiencies gained during the pandemic. As the roads have become less congested, HGV’s and trucks have been running more efficiently. Conversely, as the railway has strived to return to and maintain a full service, rail freight has still had to settle for stop/start routes, loops, and other inefficiencies.

In this scenario it simply cannot compete across modes as we are simply not allowing rail freight to be as efficient as it could be. Part of the argument is surely to be found in not only striking the right balance between the ways in which we move freight but also in ensuring the right balance is found between the demands of the passenger and freight customer.

To play devil’s advocate: which passenger should we put first?

Technology as an enabler of modal shift.

Perhaps the argument for modal shift cannot be based on fuel and direct emission comparisons alone.

What the rail freight sector needs to be able to do is to demonstrate areas in which it is making efficiency gains; and this demands the digitisation of some deeply entrenched processes. In the wider world Industry 4.0 is still big news. Across the piece sectors are digitising and digitalising in many and varied ways. In every incidence of a sector’s digitisation the driving force is efficiency, in realising productivity gains, and thus in maintaining a competitive edge.

Referring back to Maggie Simpson’s presentation she asserts that ‘Digitisation [of rail freight] is something that we absolutely need to embrace, and not just in locos. What is the future of wagons? What should our terminals look like?

‘Where technology really works is where it delivers for the business, when it delivers in terms of the bottom line and efficiency … it is important that we use digitisation and technology to really pull forward how we do the day to day. Using phones instead of paper, for example, transforming the way our staff work on the ground … using remote condition monitoring to pull wagons out of service only when they need to be and to handle loco failures in the most effective way.’

Embracing new technology also offers massive potential for job creation. The iPort at Doncaster and the East Midlands Gateway support jobs in their thousands. And these locations are not only strategic rail freight interchanges; they are also extremely sophisticated buildings that are built on the principles of Industry 4.0. Robotics, automation, telemetry, and digitisation are all intrinsic to their warehousing offering, and in turn demand and create high-skill jobs. Linking rail freight to warehousing in this way drives regional productivity and economic growth and creates a virtuous circle that ties back to a digitally enabled rail freight sector, as the backbone to a more efficient multimodal offering.

Digitisation has the potential to help the rail freight sector become more cost effective, more productive, and this more environmentally friendly. But is this enough to make sure digitisation is fully adopted and exploited? Possibly not.

In the free market profit margins and return on investment decide what new technology is adopted. We know we should do all we can to support decarbonization, but when the link between innovation and return on investment are not evident in the short term it is harder to justify the uptake of new technology. We know that ‘transforming the way staff work on the ground’ is good; using a smart device as opposed to reams of paper is obviously better for the environment, but how does the efficiency gain translate in terms of achieving decarbonization goals?

The Institute for Government asserts that ‘much of the transition to net zero will be carried out by the private sector, not government’ and that ‘a bottom-up approach of ad hoc commitments disconnected from the aggregate target will not work … [delivering net zero] will require government to leverage innovation and apply it rapidly, which means creating the conditions for the market to operate effectively.’

To conclude, I return to Lord Goldmsith’s statement, that governments can choose to place environmental sustainability at the heart of economic recovery packages, and I would ask that our government does everything it can to help rail freight digitalise, to help it remain as environmentally competitive as possible, to truly be the backbone of a sustainable intermodal offering, and to really build back greener.

Many thanks to Maggie Simpson for her help in writing this article. Simpson is Director General of the Rail Freight Group (RFG) is the representative body for rail freight in the UK. RFG’s members include rail freight operators, logistics companies, ports, equipment suppliers, property developers and support services, as well as retailers, construction companies and other customers. Its aim is to increase the volume of goods moved by rail.

Lucy Prior MBE is Business Engagement Director at 3Squared, a specialist software and consultancy helping its rail and construction clients achieve greater efficiencies and become safer and greener through digitalisation. Outside of her day job Lucy also holds roles on the RSG Export Workstream and is vice-chair on the RIA SME group. Most importantly she is a full-time working parent to two young children who hear an awful lot about just how cool and important the rail sector is.