Martin Tugwell, Programme Director at England’s Economic Heartland, summarises the group’s freight study…

It is no coincidence that one of the first technical studies commissioned by England’s Economic Heartland in support of our regional transport strategy was on freight and logistics.

The reason is quite simple. If we are to realise the economic potential of the Heartland, understanding the future requirements of the business community when it comes to freight and logistics is essential. Shaping the way our transport system evolves in support of the freight and logistics sector is therefore a critical success factor. It is worth remembering that many of the step changes that have taken place in our transport system over the years have as their driver changes in the way business operates. Indeed the rail system’s origins lie in the need to move freight: after all people couldn’t possibly travel at the unheard of speeds of early railways!

What is clear is that this part of the transport system is one whose members look for a stronger policy framework at the regional level. Indeed, our work has identified a concern within the sector that an absence of local policy and national strategy leaves it facing uncertainty.

Our Outline Transport Strategy is underpinned by a simple vision: ‘connecting people and places with opportunities and services’. Freight and logistics services are integral to achieving that vision. Our region – stretching from Swindon across to Cambridgeshire and Northamptonshire down to Hertfordshire – is at the heart of the UK’s freight network. Our transport system plays a key role not only supporting the region’s economy but in enabling the wider UK economy too.

The Heartland’s transport links – both road and rail – are the arteries linking key ports in the global shipping network, in particular Southampton and Felixstowe, whilst air freight operations via Heathrow and East Midlands airports are also important global gateways.

The major concentration of freight distribution consolidation and distribution centres in the ‘golden triangle’ in the northern part of the Heartland further emphasise the importance of placing freight and logistics at the heart of our transport strategy.

Consolidation and distribution centres have formed clusters near to many of the region’s motorway junctions, notably around Milton Keynes, Bicester and Northampton: a further reflection of the importance of the sector and one that serves to create opportunities.

Our Outline Transport Strategy highlights the key role that the rail sector has to play in delivering on our ambition for the region. The foundations on which we are building are strong: the 23 active rail freight terminals in the Heartland handle a mixture of intermodal containers, construction materials, domestic waste, automotive and metals.

The West Coast Mainline, the cross-country route from Southampton through Oxford and on to the Midlands and the Felixstowe to Nuneaton corridor sees high volumes of containerised freight. The Midland Main Line and Great Western Main Line carry significant flows of construction materials: for a region that has ambitions for economic growth the importance of such flows will further increase.

Our Freight and Logistics study concluded that there remains the potential to move significant volumes of freight from our roads and onto rail. It’s an ambition that is a key focus for England’s Economic Heartland. However, to realise this ambition will require a shift in policy, and for that shift to be then reflected in our investment decisions.

Our submission to the Williams Rail Review made the case for recognising that we must plan for freight not only as part of the rail industry but more broadly as part of the wider transport system. In doing so, there needs to be greater recognition (at national and regional level) that wider public sector interest may support intervention in the market when it comes to planning for rail freight capacity. In other words, rather than waiting for a commercial case to be established there may be a case to invest in capacity to encourage further modal shift that has benefits for the wider transport system.

If we look at strategic freight movements out of the eastern ports there are potentially three corridors of interest – the North London Line, East West Rail, and Felixstowe to Nuneaton. Individually each of these corridors needs to balance pressures between passenger and freight services. If we take a step back and consider the long-term strategic needs of the rail system (both passenger and freight) there may be an argument to encourage the development of rail freight capacity on particular corridor(s).

The Mayor of London’s Transport Strategy has an ambition to remove long-distance through freight movements from the North London Line: the argument being that this will free up space for additional passenger services. Clearly, an alternative strategic route is required to accommodate the displaced freight movement.

Whilst the East West Rail corridor is a potential alternative, there would need to be conscious choice on the part of the public sector to make the investment that ensures it has both the capability and the capacity to accommodate such flows alongside the ambition for East West Rail as a strategic passenger corridor.

This situation illustrates one of the key challenges at the moment; namely that policy makers and the rail industry view investment in freight capacity as being driven by market forces. As society looks to the profession to reduce the environmental impact of the transport system as a whole then the justification for public sector intervention based on wider public good derived from investment increases.

Simply put, a step change in approach is required: business as usual just won’t cut it.

Working with our partners including Network Rail, adjoining Sub-national Transport Bodies and the freight sector, we are working to develop our understanding of the potential for future growth in rail freight. A key consideration in this is the continued growth in intermodal traffic and recognition of the continued need for construction materials required to fuel a growing economy.

Growth in rail freight will require further investment in Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges and rail terminals to address gaps in provision. Given their strategic importance to the economy, it is appropriate for future requirements to be identified at the regional level.

The role of rail freight in accommodating construction materials cannot be overstated. We know that the movement of goods and materials to and from building sites is a major component of road freight traffic. For example, in London 35 per cent of daytime HGV traffic is associated with construction, contributing to congestion and poor air quality, as well as being a hazard for pedestrians and cyclists.

And yet the Rail Delivery Group has estimated that one freight train can carry the material required to build 30 houses. The efficient movement of construction materials will also play a role in controlling costs and avoiding disruption to supplies as a result of road congestion.

Our Freight Study, published in July and available on our website, was informed by engagement with policy makers, major businesses, infrastructure operators and logistics companies. The collaborative approach underpinning the study has engendered positive feedback from the industry and serves to act as a foundation on which to take forward the study’s recommendations.

Establishing a Regional Freight Forum will enable policy makers and the industry to strengthen that collaborative working that is essential if the issues identified by the study are to be addressed. The work of the Regional Freight Forum will need to be data-led and in this we will build on the investment already made in the Regional Evidence Base that’s available to all EEH partners.

Working with adjoining STBs, DfT, Network Rail and Highways England we will develop a specification of data requirements to ensure data is collected in a consistent and usable format. Through the Regional Freight Forum we will work with the industry to identify where regulatory changes are required in order to achieve this. As the Sub-national Transport Body, EEH is well placed to be an independent and trusted third party data collector.

England’s Economic Heartland was established by the region’s political and business leaders with the express ambition of realising the economic potential of the region through improved connectivity. And whilst economic growth remains a core driver, this cannot be at the expense of the environment.

In our Outline Transport Strategy, we set ourselves the ambition of achieving a net zero carbon transport system by 2050. At the time of the strategy’s production, that seemed a challenging enough target, but events have moved on rapidly: the ‘climate emergency’ has never been far from the headlines of late. And responses to the Outline Transport Strategy are asking the question as to whether we should be more ambitious.

Fundamentally we know that we have to reduce the level of non-renewable resources consumed by the transport sector. We know we have to reduce the environmental impact too. But we need to do so in a way that enables the freight and logistics sector – the engine room of our economy – to continue to support businesses and our communities. Maximising the potential of rail freight will certainly help us get there, sooner rather than later.

Martin Tugwell is Programme Director at England’s Economic Heartland