Philippa Edmunds, Freight on Rail Manager explains how Government should align its rail freight policies with comparative industries

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) report, issued on June 28, paints a damning picture of the Government’s environmental record on transport, which is now the largest emitting sector of the UK economy.

Transport is the only sector which grew between 2012 and 2017 and is responsible for 28 per cent of overall UK carbon dioxide emissions. In 2017, HGVs were responsible for 17 per cent of emissions whilst only accounting for five per cent of miles driven.

The CCC stated 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.

But it’s not just carbon emissions, we must also reduce road freight’s effect on congestion, and rail is well placed to offer a safer, cleaner long-distance alternative which reduces road congestion for both consumer traffic as well as the traditional bulk cargoes.

Inrix, which specialises in transport analytics, estimated that road congestion cost the UK £30 billion in 2016, with the UK ranked the fourth most congested developed country and third most congested in Europe. Building more roads will not solve the problems as it creates new traffic, because when a new road is built, new traffic will divert onto it, a well-known and long-established effect called ‘induced traffic’.

The Freight Transport Association (FTA) stated that it costs around £1 a minute to run a 44-tonne truck, so congestion has a considerable financial impact on operations; transferring more freight to rail, helps make road operations more reliable.

There is suppressed demand for both consumer and construction rail freight services because of the limitations of the rail network. For example, each free rail path out of our two major container ports, Felixstowe and Southampton, can be filled immediately. Continuing to upgrade the Strategic Rail Freight Network through the enhancement programme will open up more badly needed capacity, and that’s why we are urging the Government to carry on supporting these schemes as part of Network Rail’s Control Period Six.

Government incentives
The Government must also fund revised road and rail comparative carbon dioxide emissions and air quality measurements to inform the reductions debate and targets. We believe that the lack of alignment between Government policies for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) and rail freight disadvantages the latter.

This lack of consistency is apparent in Government policy towards the environment. Both road and rail freight have to deal with the power to weight issues when considering the use of alternative fuels to diesel. The Government has banned diesel-only traction for freight locomotives from 2040 but has not banned diesel HGVs.

This is damaging to rail freight because the Government has also halted rail electrification, which offers the proven technology and the best solution for increasing capacity, lowering maintenance costs, reducing air pollution and cutting carbon dioxide emissions, when there is no alternative fuel in the pipeline to match it.

The Government needs to recognise the importance of investing in further rail electrification and support the rail freight industry in researching new alternative fuels and measures to reduce emissions from existing locomotives. Earlier in the year Julian Worth, a rail freight expert, made the case for a modest re-wiring of around 320 key miles of track over a 30-year period which could see two thirds of rail freight moved by electric traction.

The strong benefit-cost ratio for freight enhancements, typically between 4:1 and 8:1 as highlighted in the latest Network Rail Route Strategic Plan, should be factored into investment planning. Targeted rail freight upgrades work; the gauge upgrades out of Southampton Port increased rail’s market share from 29 to 36 per cent within a year and had a benefit-cost ratio of 5:1.

The rail freight grants, known as Mode Shift Revenue Support (MSRS), are only paid by the DfT for actual traffic removed from roads and deliver an average benefit-cost ratio of more than 5:1. These have been incredibly effective at moving freight from road to rail since 2004/05 with container volumes doubling. Through the grant system, the Government acknowledges that this market distortion makes it difficult for the sustainable modes to compete on price because of the lack of a level playing field.

The current Government subsidy to HGVs is around £6 billion per annum as HGVs only pay around a third of their road congestion, road infrastructure damage, collisions and pollution costs. The rail freight grants, which currently have a budget of £15 million, are paid by the Government in recognition of the economic, safety and pollution benefits of removing trucks from our roads but are only funded until March 2020. These should be continued.

Building the country
The latest quarterly Office of Rail and Road (ORR) rail freight statistics issued in September, show record expansion in construction traffic (up seven per cent) demonstrating the industry’s key role in building our infrastructure and housing.

Almost half of building materials are brought into London by rail. Projects such as Heathrow Terminal 5, HS1, the Olympic Park and the construction of Crossrail have benefitted from the reliability, competitiveness and capability of rail freight. The new aggregates terminal at Cricklewood in North London, for example, will service the £4.5 billion Brent Cross housing regeneration scheme.

Each train in and out of the terminal will remove up to 85 HGVs from the strategic road network and carry enough materials to build 30 houses.

Significant investments from rail freight operators and Government, as well as ports, terminals and other customers, have helped to improve the productivity, efficiency and performance of rail freight since 1994. The biggest driver of freight efficiency has been running longer trains, and since 2003 the number of freight trains on the network has fallen by almost half (46 per cent), yet the amount of freight moved on each train has increased by over three quarters.

In the last three years freight operators have relinquished more than half of their freight paths, freeing up capacity for passenger services and other freight services to run. Rail freight operators and Network Rail are continuing to work together to enable longer trains to operate. As part of the Great North Rail project, Network Rail has invested £18 million to lengthen a freight siding at Buxton to allow trains to carry almost 50 per cent more construction materials coming out of nearby quarries.

The granting of planning permission for the extension of freight sidings at Redbridge, Southampton, which unlocks a pinch point on the railway, will allow for longer freight trains which can further reduce air pollution and road congestion, both locally and on the whole A34 corridor to the West Midlands and beyond.

This scheme will help Southampton City Council, which has announced plans for a Clean Air Zone, reduce its air pollution. The development means that the existing 20 daily consumer freight trains in and out of Southampton, which already remove around 1,600 HGVs per day, will be capable of removing an additional 728 HGVs per day as part of a wider scheme to allow 775 metre trains out of Southampton port.

Transfer points
New developments and services on the network show the vital importance of ports and terminals to rail freight and more rail/road transfer points are needed if rail freight is to play its full role in reducing road congestion and carrying freight in a safer more sustainable way.

Terminals reduce the transhipment costs between the modes and let both modes play to their strengths. The latest rail freight interchange at IPort is the first inland strategic rail freight interchange (SRFI) built in the past ten years and despatched its first train service from Doncaster to Southampton in mid-September.

IPort, which is a state-of-the-art multimodal rail terminal and can handle six trains a day, connects to the East Coast Mainline, is located next to the M18 and is within two hours of the East Coast’s deep-water ports.

The proposed Four Ashes Strategic Rail Freight Terminal, near Wolverhampton, is proceeding through the planning system. Crucially, it is adjacent to junction 12 of the M6 with direct access to the West Coast Mainline which has the capability to carry the larger containers.

Eddie Stobart has launched a new consumer products service linking London ports to central Scotland by rail with its first train service connecting the port of Tilbury to Tesco’s site at Daventry for onward rail connection to Mossend in Scotland. There is also a new rail freight terminal at Anglesey, which can handle six trains a day to cater for the ten daily ferries to and from Ireland.

Teesport already has a daily rail freight container service to Scotland. Network Rail and Tees Valley Combined Authority are undertaking a £1 million study to investigate ways at improving the region’s rail freight network, including expanding the rail freight capability to and from Teesport, with the aim of allowing freight to use more direct routes and carry more containers on each train.

The relative safety costs of the different freight modes also need to be taken into account in the freight debate. Government figures show that  HGV involvement in fatalities on urban roads (39 deaths per billion vehicle miles travelled by HGV) is more than six times that of cars (6.4 deaths per billion vehicle miles travelled), with the DfT valuing the prevention of each road death at £2.1 million.

It is crucial that rail, which supports port and shipping operators, manufacturers, retailers and construction companies across the country, is not overlooked by the Government; we need a rail network that works for both passengers and freight. The rail freight industry needs to highlight all the socio-economic benefits of rail freight, which can help the Government achieve its objectives to make freight more efficient and sustainable, in the lead up to the Government Spending Review next year.


Philippa Edmunds is Freight on Rail Manager and part of the Campaign for Better Transport. Members of Freight on Rail are Campaign for Better Transport, DB Cargo UK, Freightliner, GB Railfreight, Direct Rail Services, Colas Rail, Rail Freight Group, ASLEF, RMT  and TSSA