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Put rail freight centre stage

Philippa Edmunds's picture
freight train in a port

The Department for Transport (DfT) Rail Freight Strategy, published this month, is most welcome as it provides a clear vision for rail freight. It will help industry plan and provide greater certainty to customers and investors at a time when it needs to adapt to changes in its market and, in particular, steep declines in coal traffic. And the £1.6 billion per year benefits of rail freight to UK economy are rightly highlighted.

Carbon reduction through greater use of rail is rightly centre stage in both this Government’s policy and the DfT Freight Carbon Review, due to be published shortly. If Arup’s recommendations, in particular network enhancements and affordable freight charges, are implemented rail can help the Government meet its legally binding carbon dioxide emissions reduction targets in the Climate Change Act. Arup’s analysis shows rail has the potential to save over 4.6 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, a reduction of around 19 per cent of total 2013 HGV emissions.

This strategy will help the industry adapt and innovate; already we have seen consistent performance improvements using longer heavier trains. More initiatives include DB Cargo’s pop up terminals, DRS’s new dual mode electric and diesel locomotive 88, GB Railfreight’s use of STVA double-deck car wagons through the Channel Tunnel and Freightliner’s conversion of coal hoppers into modern box wagons.  

The key growth markets are ports intermodal, (deep sea containers) and construction with potential for domestic intermodal, biomass and automotive traffic as well.

The strategy acknowledges that there is suppressed demand for rail freight services because of lack of rail freight network capacity. For example, Felixstowe port which now has 23 daily services in and out, can fill every additional rail slot which comes free. The Felixstowe branch line upgrades currently under way should generate another ten daily slots. Other port links and upgrades for construction traffic from the Peak District are also funded and in the pipe-line, but further targeted Government investments, such as increasing the capacity on the route between Peterborough and Nuneaton, would bring step changes in the volumes of rail freight and result in huge socio- economic benefits for UK PLC and society.  

It also notes that the Hendy Review states that the average benefit to cost ratio of projects funded by SFN budget was between four and five, very high according to the DfT’s criteria.  

The lack of a level playing field between rail and HGVs makes it difficult for rail to compete, especially in consumer markets as HGVs only pay around a third of the costs they impose on society.  As a result of Freight on Rail’s involvement in the DfT strategy steering group, it is now recognised that the socio-economic benefits of rail should be better recognised in the charges rail freight operators pay to use the rail network. The Strategy states that a significant increase in track access charges could result in some freight moving from rail to road, resulting in the associated economic and environmental benefits to the UK being lost, particularly for those commodities where rail freight is in direct competition with road and operators therefore have a limited ability to pass on any increase in costs to their customers.

Safeguarding scarce rail lands on the network for future potential rail use is supported by the DfT, but the reality is there is considerable pressure on Network Rail to sell lands to pay for its current enhancement programme. 

Missing from the strategy is acknowledgement of the considerable benefits for UK PLC from introducing a distance based lorry road charging system which could make HGVs pay a fairer share of their costs. The socio-economic advantages of this policy were recommended in a draft of the consultant’s report but sadly removed from the final version.

Rail is the most environmentally friendly means of land transport which can help satisfy our growing demand for consumer goods while reducing road congestion and road collisions. Remember an average freight train can remove around 70 HGVs from our roads.