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Shift freight from road to rail to fight climate change

Philippa Edmunds's picture
Rail freight produces 76% less CO2 than lorries

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) is urging Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport, to do more to cut transport sector carbon emissions to avoid undermining legally binding targets in the Climate Change Act. Transport is the only sector whose emissions grew between 2012 and 2017 and is responsible for 28 per cent of overall UK carbon dioxide emissions. In 2017, HGVs were responsible for 17 per cent of emissions whilst only accounting for five per cent of miles driven. The CCC stated that the Department for Transport Freight Carbon Review identified "little concrete action" on HGV and freight efficiency and said that the Government should reduce emissions from freight by shifting freight from road to rail.

Transferring more freight from road to rail, where there is pent-up demand on certain key routes, should be part of the solution as every tonne carried by rail instead of HGVs reduces carbon dioxide emissions by 76 per cent. HGV engine efficiency has not improved in recent years; CO2 intensity increased by 2.2 per cent due entirely to decreased fleet efficiency in 2017.

But it's not just carbon emissions, we must also reduce road freight's effect on congestion, and rail is well placed to offer a safer, cleaner, long-distance alternative which reduces road congestion for both consumer traffic as well as the traditional bulk cargoes.

If more lorry traffic can be transferred to rail, road safety and reliability will improve. According to the Freight Transport Association, the running cost of a 44-tonne truck is around £1 a minute, so any hold-ups have a considerable financial impact on haulage operations.

Rail is well placed to carry out the long-distance consumer and traditional bulk traffic, especially in construction which grew by seven per cent in the first quarter of 2018/2019 compared to the previous year. For example almost half of London's building materials are brought into the capital by rail.

Furthermore, there is suppressed demand for rail freight services in both markets and the strong benefit-cost ratios for freight enhancements, typically in the range of 4:1 to 8:1, highlighted in the latest Network Rail Route Strategic Plan, shows that rail freight projects are good value for money. Targeted rail freight upgrades really 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.

Every rail freight slot which comes available at either Felixstowe or Southampton ports can be filled as shippers want more services. Currently, there are 33 trains per day into and out of Felixstowe. The branch line between Felixstowe and Ipswich is currently being expanded to cater for another twelve trains each day. So, we are calling for the rail freight route between Ipswich and Nuneaton to be upgraded so this direct route between the port and the West Midlands can be expanded.

Rail freight plays a crucial role in supporting port and shipping operators, manufacturers, retailers and construction companies across the country. Without more rail freight services, the Government will struggle to meet its CO2, air pollution reduction and productivity targets. 


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