Michael Grace, Strategic Growth Director at SNC-Lavalin, explains how rail freight can expedite UK’s net zero future…
Too often, a vital aspect of our railways is ignored. Rail conjures images of passengers and platforms, conductors and concourses. But rail freight operates under the radar. And consequently, few are aware of how instrumental it could be in reducing the UK’s carbon footprint.
Currently, rail only accounts for five percent of the UK’s hauled freight. The most popular haulage choice by far? Road, with 89 per cent of all freight carried by lorries. Yet if the UK is to meet its legally-binding ‘Net Zero’ aspirations, more of this cargo must be moved by train. Rail freight has a fraction of the road’s carbon footprint, with scope to bring this number even lower.
Importantly, there’s also plenty more capacity available in rail freight. In 2018-19, the total volume of rail freight moved rose to 17.4 billion net tonne kilometres. It sounds vast, but just a few years ago it was well over 20 billion. Most of this decline is linked to the collapse in demand for coal, which was mostly hauled by train. But it also signals that there is a large amount of unused capacity and untapped potential out there.
Rail vs road – a choice for people and the environment
Carrying more freight by train unlocks a huge opportunity to decongest our roads and reduce the carbon footprint of our haulage.
Levelling up our rail freight can help improve our roads. Thanks to freight trains, 7.2 million lorry journeys were avoided in 2017-18. And with HGVs responsible for 17 per cent of the UK’s total transport emissions, this reduction can have a significant effect on carbon reduction. Around a fifth (21 per cent) of UK greenhouse gas emissions came from road transport in 2017. Our railways still represent the cleanest choice for freight transportation, and by transferring more of our road freight to rail, we can reap the benefits.
Transporting more goods via rail isn’t just a boon for the nation’s sustainability, it’s also good for road users’ sanity. Congestion continues to grow. On the Strategic Road Network, the average delay per vehicle grew by 0.4 seconds year on year in 2018, according to the government’s own figures. The government forecasts that traffic on the UK’s already-busy SRN could increase by as much as 59 per cent by 2050. Freight can help ease this load. According to the Rail Freight Group, each freight train removes around 60 lorries from our roads. And that means more than just reduced emissions or less congestion. Fewer HGVs would also reduce the amount of wear and tear on the roads, lowering maintenance costs (whose processes are also carbon-intensive).
So, to help our roads, we must power up our rail. A holistic approach considering the relationship between rail and road benefits both.
Clearly, rail freight has many advantages over roads. But to maintain this superiority in the face of improvements such as electric vehicles, rail freight must show it is capable of going green. Rail produces just 25 per cent of the carbon footprint of road freight, but this number is still too high. Less than half of the UK’s tracks are currently electrified, with the majority of our railway running diesel trains. A rolling programme of electrification would allow gradual, sustainable transformation of the tracks, reducing our carbon footprint without suffering from the stop-start ‘boom and bust’ problems of the past.
Some parts of the track are more urgent than others, so it’s important to start where we can reap the most gains. Felixstowe, the UK’s busiest container port, still lacks electrification. Electrifying the route to Ipswich, for example, would help to create a clean corridor for freight to be hauled up and down the east coast.
Getting society on track
Getting our transport strategy right will determine whether or not the UK can hit its Net Zero goals. To achieve this, we need to understand the relationships between people, government, and business that shape our transport behaviours. Only by understanding the interconnections between these three aspects of society can we make wise, long-term choices. For example, careful planning policy can help to protect freight terminals from housing developments. Decisions like these can help ensure rail freight’s viability.
Anticipating changing demand can also help ensure that freight remains relevant to tomorrow’s challenges. Online shopping has led to a huge growth in delivery trucks, hauling our parcels up and down the country. Converting inter-city trains to share the load could help to remove many of these vans, reducing congestion while ensuring we all receive our deliveries. It could even expedite the process.
None of this will happen overnight. The first step is to begin looking at the UK’s transport network holistically. Understanding rail freight’s potential to decongest our roads, clean up our haulage, and boost our chances of hitting those Net Zero goals all begins by looking at the relationships between transport modes. In turn, this holistic understanding generates support for joined-up policies that empower our freight to become greater in capacity, cleaner in emissions, and play a vital part in the transport network of the future.
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