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Government Ports Study highlights vast disparity between road and rail freight funding

Philippa Edmunds's picture
port freight train

The Government’s Ports Connectivity Study, issued last week, stated that it ‘invested £235 million between 2014 and 2019 to improve rail freight links and £23 billion to provide better journeys on England’s roads’. At the same time, it acknowledges that upgrading the rail freight connections to our ports is critical to providing sustainable efficient freight distribution and identifies key routes which need enhancing.

Meanwhile customers are crying out for more rail freight services, especially out of Felixstowe and Southampton so we now need action the Government needs to get on and commit funding to these projects to make them happen. The strong benefit cost ratios for freight enhancements, typically in the range of 4:1 to 8:1, should be factored into investment planning. Targeted rail freight investments work; within a year of the completion of the gauge upgrades on the A34 route out of Southampton, rail’s share of the market increased from 29 to 36 per cent, showing that there is considerable suppressed demand for more rail freight services.

Road and rail complement each other; for socio-economic reasons, rail is the best way to deliver long-distance consumer freight as well as traditional bulk traffic. Construction traffic grew seven per cent last year and consumer freight traffic has grown ten per cent over the past three years. The largest HGVs make far more longer distance trips than smaller trucks – a quarter of all their trips are over 300kms so some of these trips would be captive to rail if the network were upgraded.

Research commissioned by Campaign for Better Transport, sponsored by the Department for Transport and mentioned in the Government’s Ports Study, shows that upgrading the existing rail lines which run parallel to key congested motorway routes would allow large numbers of lorry loads to be transferred to rail, easing congestion. Taking the Felixstowe example there are already 33 daily trains in and out of the port which remove the equivalent of over 3,000 HGVs from the A14 corridor every day. The upgrade of the Felixstowe branch line currently underway is very welcome and will allow another 12 trains in and out of the port thereby removing an additional 1,000 HGVs daily. However, further enhancements would open up the branch line project which could remove a total of 2,000 large HGVs each day which equates to removing 8,000 average-sized cars from the A14 corridor.

Our further research also showed that these enhancements would reduce air pollution by ten per cent on the corridor too. The A14 has up to 6,500 of the largest HGVs (five and six axle articulated lorries) each day, between ten per cent and 17 per cent of all traffic, and removing 2,000 HGVs would improve the productivity, safety and reliability of the road network. Government statistics show that HGVs are almost seven times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal collisions on local roads.

There is also growing recognition of the need to tackle freight’s particulate emissions from brake and tyre as well as tail-pipe particulate emissions. Over half of small particle pollution comes from the wear on brake discs and tyres and by throwing up dust from roads; in the case of large HGVs it will be difficult to reduce these emissions.

The Department for Transport, which sponsored the congestion element of the research, said: "We agree with Campaign for Better Transport that rail freight offers real benefits for the environment and helps keep bulky loads off of the road network, helping to ease congestion for other motorists. We look forward to using these findings to help inform our coming road and rail strategies and are committed to working with the rail freight industry to support growth of the sector.”

Building more roads alone will not solve the problems as it creates new traffic so more efficient use of existing roads by lorries is part of the answer. When a new road is built, new traffic will divert onto it, a well-known and long-established effect of ‘induced traffic’.  This is one of the concerns with the proposed Liverpool Port Access Road.  However, the bigger worry is that this road is proposed to be routed right down the middle of a long linear country park, completely destroying a much loved and much used community asset, essential for people's health and well-being. This is being driven through in the absence of any coordinated strategy to upgrade rail access to the port. If such a strategy existed it would avoid the need for this highly destructive road proposal, while a more coordinated approach nationally could help reduce the need for other damaging road schemes across the country.

So, we urge the Government to act on its own recommendations to upgrade key rail freight port routes on economic, safety and pollution grounds.

Transport infrastructure for our global future: A study of England’s port connectivity and England’s port connectivity: the current picture – nine regional case studies, are available here.