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Increasing rail and water freight will cut road congestion, says new research

27 April 2015

Getting more freight onto rail and water could significantly reduce road traffic, improve congestion and be better for the environment, according to new research carried out for Campaign for Better Transport.


Government research has played down the potential benefits of the transfer from road to sustainable methods by only looking at national averages across all strategic roads. 

But this new research also looked at specific routes which typically tend to be more congested because of more long-distance HGV traffic, particularly to ports. HGV traffic overall could fall by 21 per cent, and congestion could fall by 15-25 per cent were rail and water freight both to increase by 50 per cent on these routes. 

Philippa Edmunds, Freight on Rail Manager, Campaign for Better Transport, said:

“While the Government is committed to investing significant funds in the railways and in rail freight in particular, it has underestimated the full extent to which this investment could reduce road congestion.

"The Government should take account in its forecasting and modelling, and in its policy and spending, the potential to shift HGV traffic to rail and water and the congestion, safety and pollution benefits of doing so.”


Notes to editors

1. Research - Potential reductions in congestion on the strategic road network from alternatives to HGV use. Metropolitan Transport Research Unit, April 2015 

2. The National Networks Policy Statement contains the following statement:

"In general, the nature of some journeys on the Strategic Road Network means that there will tend to be less scope for the use of alternative transport modes…. If freight carried by rail was to increase by 50% (in terms of tonne kilometres) this would only be equivalent to a reduction of around 7% in goods carried by road."

The Government statement, which only looks at national averages, needs to take into account the following to get a true picture of the potential to reduce road congestion:-

· that some parts of road network have more long distance HGV traffic which could be carried by rail

· national figures include small HGVs which do not compete with rail. It did not separate out the activity of the largest goods vehicles from those which are undertaking local deliveries and are less likely to be replaced by modes such as rail or water.

· that HGVs occupy considerably more road space than cars (have a high passenger car unit pcu value),also need longer braking distances and slower to manoeuvre and therefore cause more road congestion   

· in congested conditions each single per cent increase in traffic causes several percentage increase in congestion. In fact,  Department for Transport figures state that a modest decrease in traffic of around 2%, results in congestion falling by 10%.  DfT figures show that on congested parts of the network, congestion could be three to four times the percentage reduction in overall traffic levels, using a simple low congestion impact multiplier of 3-4. 

· the average figures disguise the more significant impacts where HGVs are a higher proportion of traffic

· the impact of additional traffic in already congested conditions is far greater than a simple increase in pcu or vehicle kilometres suggest – it rises exponentially.

3. A 50 per cent increase in rail alone could reduce HGV traffic on busier roads by 12 per cent and road congestion by 9-12 per cent.

4. DfT statistics show that HGVs are six times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal crashes on minor routes. Source DfT: Traffic statistics table TRA0104 , Accident statistics Table RAS 30017

5. Rail freight produces 76 per cent less carbon dioxide than the equivalent road journey. Source Network Rail: Value and Importance of Rail Freight.