Customers want more rail freight

Source: RTM June/July 2018

Philippa Edmunds, Freight on Rail manager at the Campaign for Better Transport, makes a socioeconomic case for continued investment not only in the national rail freight network, but in connections to ports and electrification.

Key government policies highlight rail freight’s role in servicing the UK economy in a cleaner, safer way which reduces road collisions and road infrastructure damage. The latest example is the government’s Clean Air Strategy, which wants to accelerate the shift from road to rail and recognises its role in low-emissions urban delivery. Its commitment to carry out research into alternative fuels for the sector and the latest rail/road emissions comparisons will be crucial in setting a clear framework to realise these goals.

Furthermore, the DfT Carbon Review highlighted rail freight’s economic, safety and carbon benefits: shifting freight from road to rail can result in significant CHG emission savings as well as economic and safety co-benefits.

However, government action is needed to expand rail freight. The biggest issue facing freight is a shortage of infrastructure capacity, so continued government investment to unblock pinchpoints and improve the capability of the Strategic Freight Network is crucial to satisfy customer demand in both construction and consumer traffic, the two main sectors which make up two-thirds of the market. Targeted rail freight upgrades work; the gauge upgrades out of Southampton Port increased rail’s market share from 29% to 36% within a year and had a benefit-cost ratio of five to one.

Therefore, Freight on Rail is making a strong socioeconomic case for continued government investment in the Strategic Rail Freight Network, for which no figures have been given as yet for the next five-year funding period from 2019 to 2024, known as CP6.

Connections to ports

We welcome the recognition in the DfT Ports Connectivity Study, published in late April, that upgrading the rail freight connections to our ports is critical to providing sustainable and efficient freight distribution. The study identifies key routes which need enhancing, so we urge the government to commit funding to these projects to make them happen.

We have long argued that integrated rail and road planning is the best way to make freight distribution more efficient and less polluting, so DfT recognition that freight policy needs to be intermodal and its setting-up of cross-modal freight teams are both positive moves.

Government support is key to giving the industry confidence to invest in terminals, wagons, rolling stock and technology as complementary investments by the private sector have supported government investment in the rail freight network. The freight operators have made £2.8bn of investment since 1994 to enhance capacity and improve performance and reliability. Ports, terminals and other users of rail freight have invested in infrastructure and other capital equipment shown by the new rail freight flows between London Gateway and  Duisburg  in Germany, and Liverpool to Mossend in Scotland. In April, a new weekly intermodal freight service was launched from London Gateway terminal via the Channel Tunnel to Duisburg, with onward connections to Poland and China. The service will initially operate once a week but has the potential to expand to up to six trains per week if demand is sufficient.

A new rail container service from the Port of Liverpool to Mossend in Scotland is a major boost to Scottish exporters, underpinning Scotland’s manufacturing base, particularly across the food and drink sectors. It will be comprised of up to 30 wagons and is expected to carry over 40 containers per trip, initially running three days a week. Scottish family-run company Walkers Shortbread, which produces 40,000 tonnes of their biscuits every year, is a new customer to rail, exporting 700 containers a year to America. Kinross-based Cygnet PG, the largest potato producer in the UK, has also committed to the new service. The move echoes Peel Ports Group’s longstanding commitment to reducing road haulage miles; it launched a rail route between Liverpool and Drax Power Station in 2015, shipping biomass pellets to the site in North Yorkshire.

Getting a grip on electrification

Road and rail complement each other, so the two modes should play to their strengths to provide the most efficient sustainable freight solutions. But treatment between the two modes needs to be fair, as rail freight has to directly compete with HGVs.

Because in reality, the combination of the DfT policy to ban rail freight diesel-only locomotives from 2040 and halt further electrification in favour of bi-mode operations will simultaneously penalise rail freight – even though it is the safer, cleaner, low-carbon alternative. If the government is serious about having the most environmentally friendly railway in the world, the benefits of electrification cannot be dismissed. EU stats from 2015 show the UK trailing at a woeful 20th in the league table of electrified lines in Europe.

The answer is for the government to get a grip on the costs of installing electrification, not halt adoption of the most sustainable fuel source, being rolled out across the rest of Europe.

The National Infrastructure Commission’s Freight Study, which is due to give an interim report in the autumn and final one next spring, will inform government freight policy. So we are explaining the importance of multimodal freight solutions for customers and the need to expand the rail freight network to cater for demand. In particular, we are highlighting that pricing across the modes needs to fair and take into account the lack of internalisation of HGV costs, otherwise the socioeconomic benefits of rail freight cannot be properly taken into account.


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