Time to recognise freight's role

Campaign for Better Transport’s Freight on Rail manager, Philippa Edmunds, argues that the National Infrastructure Commission’s (NIC’s) recent report overlooks the contribution rail freight makes to reducing congestion on British roads.

The latest NIC report undervalues the socioeconomic importance of existing rail freight services and its potential to further reduce congestion, road crashes and pollution.

It ignores the fact that rail freight projects have high benefit cost ratios compared to other transport projects. And most worryingly, it suggests transferring freight back onto our congested road network, even though each HGV takes up the space of four cars in busy conditions.

Furthermore, transport is now the largest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions, meaning that the government could struggle to meet its climate change targets. And the latest DfT figures confirm again the safety case for rail freight: HGVs were almost seven times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal crashes on urban/local roads in 2016.

Suppressed demand

The report acknowledges that urban freight is often overlooked, but it does not recognise that freight should have a role in delivering long-distance consumer freight into rail-connected hubs for transhipment into low-emissions vehicles.

Rail already delivers 40% of London’s construction materials and could deliver more if extra rail freight terminals come on stream. Each freight train can carry enough materials to build 30 houses. Rail delivered the materials and removed spoil for Crossrail and the Olympics.

NIC’s research uses national averages in transport planning instead of analysing individual corridors where there are parallel rail routes, which is misleading. Furthermore, the organisation is pinning its hopes on lorry platooning, which is in its infancy for dense road networks like the UK, whereas rail freight is already removing large numbers of HGVs from key transport corridors each day.

There is considerable suppressed demand for more consumer and construction rail freight services on key corridors such as the A14, A34 and M6, so capacity upgrades could remove serious numbers of the large long-distance lorries from congested routes.

For example, the 33 freight trains in and out of Felixstowe already remove around 2,500 lorries per day off the congested A14 corridor. Rail freight could be increased by 50-60% on both the A14 and A34 out of Southampton Port within the next five to seven years based on a combination of current funded CP5 Network Rail projects and the as yet unfunded proposals in the Network Rail Freight Network Study for CP6 until 2024. 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.

The A14 corridor from Felixstowe had up to 6,500 of the largest HGVs (five and six axle articulated lorries) on the corridor each day, which represented between 10% and 17% of all traffic.

Integrated planning

Our DfT-sponsored research, ‘Impact on congestion of transfer of freight from road to rail on key strategic corridors,’ confirms what we have long argued: that integrated rail and road planning is the best way to reduce road congestion, collisions and pollution. It shows that on certain strategic transport corridors it is possible to improve road conditions without needing to add more road capacity. If long-distance freight can be transferred to rail, the productivity and reliability of existing road services will improve.

This research demonstrates the importance of analysing strategic corridors instead of simply using national averages in transport planning, so the NIC should take note of the findings. It shows the extent to which upgrading the rail freight network on key strategic corridors ameliorates road congestion and therefore improves productivity. Transferring freight from road to rail would also bring serious safety and pollution benefits at a time when the government needs to reduce air pollution. Rail produces 90% less PM10 particulates and up to 15 times less nitrogen dioxide emissions than HGVs for the equivalent journey, whereas HGVs account for around 21% of road transport NOx emissions while making up just 5% of vehicle miles.

Recent polling showed that almost two-thirds of the public wanted to see more freight on the railways, with only 2% wanting to see more freight on the roads, while other polls have shown deep public suspicion of autonomous vehicles.

As motoring groups have pointed out, there are many unresolved issues with lorry platooning on our congested road network. By contrast, our recent research shows that increased rail freight could make a real difference to congestion and pollution on some of the country’s most overcrowded roads. We’d like the government to give priority to increasing the use of sustainable freight modes and making more efficient use of existing trucks rather than new technology which, while technically interesting, is likely to have very limited real-world benefits.

We don’t want more lorries

Road haulage is very competitive but not efficient in the UK. Currently, 30% of lorries are driving around totally empty and many of the other lorries are partially full. The latest DfT figures show that only 34% of lorries were constrained by volume, i.e. loading space. We do not want more lorries; instead, government needs to introduce a distance-based lorry road user charging system which incentivises better use of trucks in order to reduce their adverse impacts on the economy, society and the environment.

Lorry platooning with driverless rear trucks might cut costs for road hauliers, but putting more freight on the railways would bring bigger and quicker reductions in congestion, road damage, crashes and pollution.

We urge the NIC to think again on its freight policies if it wants to help increase productivity and protect the environment and society, and we look forward to engaging with them. Road and rail complement each other and should play to their strengths. Nationally, a quarter of the largest HGVs (five plus axles) trips are over 300km so some of this traffic should be transferred to rail. Shippers and construction firms are crying out for more rail freight services which are constrained by capacity on the rail network. 




Lutz   25/11/2017 at 18:11

I hope the rail industry is able to back up its claims - specifically around total cost of delivery of upgrades and time-scales to delivery - all of which excessive compared to technology evolution cycles. Get real.

Sonning Cutting   27/11/2017 at 16:55

It's all right for Lutz to have a go at the cost over-runs on recent railway updates but we never see the figures for similar updates on the roads. For example what was the 'real' cost of converting a 12 mile stretch of the M3 to 4 lanes over 3/4 years. And most people consider it more dangerous than before. Whereas that work involved recent infrastructure most railway projects concern Victorian infrastructure where no accurate records etc. are available. Hence the unpleasant surprises. Even the great IKB was remiss in this matter as we know from the GWR upgrade.

Frankh   13/01/2018 at 13:26

Ms Edmonds states 30% of lorries are driving round empty and many others partially full. Rail is probably worse than that % wise. Container trains are the only ones that stand a chance of a back load ie loaded return journey even if only an empty container. Apart from engineers trains (new in, spoil out) I can't think of any load that has a loaded return.

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