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The Government must support rail freight

Philippa Edmunds's picture
A freight train at Felixstowe Port

Last month’s Government announcements about its forthcoming rail plans are disappointing given the socio-economic benefits of rail freight and its record; customer demand for more consumer and construction rail freight services is currently constrained by the lack of space on the rail network.

In fact every rail freight slot (path) which comes free at Felixstowe can be filled straight away with repressed demand for another 15 trains a day out of Felixstowe on top of the 33 trains already serving the port each day. 

The latest High Level Output Specification (HLOS), for the next five year period, is concentrating on maintenance, renewals and resilience. A far cry from the previous one in 2012, which continued funding for key upgrades on the Strategic Rail Freight Network and had a shopping list of projects, now replaced by a pipeline approach.
So we are urging the Government to continue upgrading the Strategic Rail Freight Network in its forthcoming Statement of Funds Available (SOFA), due in October and the Budget in November.
Rail freight has seen consistent year on year growth in key consumer and construction markets. Construction traffic moved by rail freight grew by 7 per cent in the year to April 2017 to a record high of 4.25 billion net tonne-km, according to ORR figures. The largest commodity group is now domestic intermodal which grew by 6 per cent last year reaching 6.8 billion net tonne-km.
Rail freight has been improving its performance; 87% of trains within 15 minutes of due time. Malcolm Logistics which operates supermarket between Daventry and Scotland advertise 98% departure within 15 minutes. While PD Ports has achieved 92% departure within 15 minutes on its service between Teesport and Scotland’s Central belt which is crucial for retail customers. 
As part of being a good railway partner, the rail freight industry has surrendered 4,700 slots (paths) out of the weekly timetable and only 1,000 have been allocated as strategic freight capacity to allow for growth.
Conversely, the Government is embracing the five year funding plan for roads and spending £15 billion on the Strategic Road Network during this period with Highways England is expanding network with over 1,300  additional lane miles between 2015 and 2020. But in the same document it states that  HGVs contribute 38% of NO2 emissions from road transport, (even though they only make up 5 per cent of miles driven) close to its motorway network.
Rail freight should have a pivotal role in reducing air and carbon dioxide emissions, congestion and fatalities. There was a 4.1% Increase in road fatalities in 2015 which puts the UK 24th out of 32 in road safety improvements in Europe; in the same year, HGVs were almost six times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal crashes than cars.  Transferring freight to rail in key long distance consumer and all traditional bulk traffic will help productivity, the environment and society so the Government must not jeopardise rail freight’s potential to be a key part of the supply chain.