The case for rail freight

Source: RTM April/May 2018

Philippa Edmunds, Freight on Rail manager at the Campaign for Better Transport, argues for freight parity by looking at the noteworthy examples of investment already taking place across the UK.

Recent rail freight figures show a positive future for rail freight in consumer goods and construction materials, which together now account for almost two-thirds of UK rail freight. In fact, the biggest issue facing rail freight is a shortage of infrastructure capacity, so continued government investment to unblock pinch points and improve the capability of the Strategic Freight Network is crucial to satisfy customer demand in both sectors.

The government should support rail freight because of the socioeconomic benefits to UK plc in recognition of the lack of parity between HGVs and rail. The latest research we commissioned in January shows that HGVs are still only paying for a third of the costs they impose on the economy; in fact, the HGV sector receives a £6bn subsidy each year, which makes it difficult for rail freight to compete – hence the need for upgrades and affordable freight charges in the next control period.

The construction sector, which expanded by 7% last year and was nearly 60% up over the previous decade, has a bright future fuelled by the demand for housing and infrastructure development. The latest quarterly ORR freight statistics show construction traffic grew 5%. Furthermore, in London almost half of building materials are delivered by rail.

The planning permission to build a modern aggregates rail freight terminal on existing rail lands at Cricklewood, North London to service the £4.5bn Brent Cross housing regeneration is noteworthy, as it represented one of the few remaining suitable sites in the capital with good rail and road connections. Without the rail terminal, building between 7,000-8,000 apartments would not be viable as all these construction materials would have to be delivered by HGVs with all the associated congestion, pollution and safety impacts.

Furthermore, this planning consent sets a crucial precedent which demonstrates that local authorities should support local rail freight terminals based on the wider national and sub-regional socioeconomic benefits, as long as there are adequate mitigation measures to handle local impacts. 

The Bow rail freight terminal in East London experienced a record-breaking week with 15,840 tonnes coming into the site, which translates to around 880 long-distance lorry movements taken off the busy roads of East End of London.

Norris Waste Management, a new rail customer, has opened a location on the Greenwich peninsula which will be taking non-hazardous soils by rail to land remediation projects around the UK. Brett Aggregates’ new plant and rail capacity delivered a 27% increase in traffic at Ipswich Port between 2016 and 2017 with a new rail flow from Port of Ipswich to London concrete in Watford.

The consumer market, which has seen consistent growth with a 10% increase in the past three years, now makes up 40% of rail freight. Ports, terminals and other users of rail freight have invested in infrastructure and other capital equipment, with the ports of Felixstowe, Southampton, London Gateway and Liverpool all making significant contributions.

Felixstowe, the largest UK container port, continues to grow and invest in rail facilities. It became the first port in the UK to handle more than one million TEU by rail in a single year. Furthermore, the £60m branch line upgrades from Ipswich to Felixstowe, jointly funded by Network Rail and Hutchison Ports, will allow up to 47 freight trains to run per day in each direction between the port and Ipswich.

Veridon’s new iPort rail hub, part of the iPort logistics hub at Doncaster, expected to bring up to 5,000 new jobs to the area, is fully operational and is the first inland strategic rail freight terminal built for 10 years. The terminal connects to the East Coast Main Line and is located next to the M18, close to Sheffield Airport and within two hours of the East Coast’s deep-water ports. 

Rail freight, the safer and cleaner alternative to HGVs, needs enhanced capacity to cater for demand and to help the government meets its decarbonisation and productivity agendas.


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