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NIC report undervalues rail freight’s role in reducing road congestion, pollution and crashes

Philippa Edmunds's picture
Tesco train going past the River Severn

The latest National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) report acknowledges that urban freight is often overlooked, but equally importantly is the neglect and undervaluing of rail freight’s role in servicing the economy. 

The report uses national averages in transport planning, instead of analysing individual corridors where there are parallel rail routes, which is misleading. Furthermore, the NIC is pinning its hopes on lorry platooning, which is in its infancy for dense road networks like the UK, whereas rail freight is already removing  large numbers of HGVs from key transport corridors each day. There is considerable suppressed demand for more consumer and construction rail freight services on key corridors such as the A14, A34 and M6, so capacity upgrades could remove serious numbers of the large long-distance lorries from congested routes.

For example, the 33 freight trains in and out of Felixstowe already remove around 2,500 lorries per day off the congested A14 corridor. Rail freight could be increase by 50 or 60 per cent on both the A14 and A34 out of Southampton Port within the next five to seven years based on a combination of current funded CP5 Network Rail projects and the, as yet, unfunded proposals in the Network Rail Freight Network Study for the Control Period 6 until 2024. 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 five to one.

The A14 corridor from Felixstowe had up to 6,500 of the largest HGVs, (five and six axle articulated lorries) on the corridor each day which represented between 10 and 17 per cent of all traffic.

Our Department for Transport (DfT) sponsored research, Impact on congestion of transfer of freight from road to rail on key strategic corridors, confirms what we have long argued, that integrated rail and road planning is the best way to reduce road congestion, collisions and pollution. It shows that on certain strategic transport corridors it is possible to improve road conditions without needing to add more road capacity. If long distance freight can be transferred to rail, the productivity and reliability of existing road services will improve.

This research demonstrates the importance of analysing strategic corridors, instead of simply using national averages in transport planning, so the NIC should take note of the findings. It shows the extent to which upgrading the rail freight network on key strategic corridors ameliorates road congestion and therefore improves productivity. Transferring freight from road to rail would also bring serious safety and pollution benefits at a time when the Government needs to reduce air pollution.

Recent polling showed that almost two thirds of the public wanted to see more freight on the railways with only two per cent wanting to see more freight on the roads, while other polls have shown deep public suspicion of autonomous vehicles.

As motoring groups have pointed out, there are many unresolved issues with lorry platooning on our congested road network. By contrast, our recent research shows that increased rail freight could make a real difference to congestion and pollution on some of the country's most overcrowded roads. We'd like the Government to give priority to increasing the use of sustainable freight modes and making more efficient use of existing trucks rather than new technology which, while technically interesting, is likely to have very limited real world benefits. 

Road haulage is very competitive but not efficient in the UK. Currently, 30 per cent of lorries are driving around totally empty and many of the other lorries are partially full. The latest DfT figures show that only 34 per cent of lorries were constrained by volume, i.e. loading space. We do not want more lorries, instead Government needs to introduce a distance based lorry road user charging system which incentivises better use of trucks in order to reduce their adverse impacts on the economy, society and the environment. 

We urge the NIC to think again on its freight policies if it wants to help increase productivity and protect the environment and society, and we look forward to engaging with them. Road and rail complement each other and should play to their strengths. A quarter of the largest HGVs ( five plus axles) trips are over 300 km so some of this traffic should be transferred to rail. Shippers and construction firms are crying out for more rail freight services which are constrained by the rail network.  

Lorry platooning, with driverless rear trucks, might cut costs for road hauliers but putting more freight on the railways would bring bigger and quicker reductions in congestion and pollution.