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Collapsing coal commodity continues to drive down rail freight activity

The total amount of rail freight moved in the last year fell by 3% to 17.2 billion net kilometres compared to 2015-16, with four out of seven commodities recording a decrease, according to the latest data from the ORR.

However, campaigners have praised increases in construction and domestic intermodal traffic.

But the regulator’s ‘Freight Rail Usage: 2016-17 Q4 Statistical Release’ made bleak reading, as the total amount of freight lifted decreased by 8% to 79.4 million tonnes in the last 12 months and is the lowest value recorded since 1984-85.

The ORR stated that the downward trend in freight train movements continued with 224,000 in 2016-17, a reduction of 5% on last year. This is also the lowest number of movements since the regulator’s time series began in 2003-04.

Of the seven commodities, coal fell the most by 39% to 1.4 billion net tonne kilometres. “Closure of coal powered stations to meet 2025 emissions target and restricted use by 2023 affected the amount of coal moved by rail to coal powered stations,” reported the ORR.

The figures also revealed significant drops in international freight moved (9%) to 0.4 billion net tonne kilometres; oil and petroleum (3%) to 1.1 billion net tonne kilometres; metals (2%) to 1.5 billion net tonne kilometres; and other (8%) to 1.7 billion net tonne kilometres.

But two areas did see a resurgence in rail freight movement, with construction up 7% and domestic intermodal increasing its share by 6%.

The regulator stated that the “increase in housebuilding and construction activity increased the amount of construction materials moved by rail freight while increase in output of consumer-focused industries, such as retail, increased the amount of domestic intermodal commodities moved by rail”.

Rail freight campaigners were keen to jump on these successes in a relatively bleak report, with Maggie Simpson, executive director at the Rail Freight Group, arguing that many commentators “predicted the death of rail freight with the end of coal but these results show that rail freight is able to adapt and grow in other markets”.

“The investment and efforts of train operators and their customers has delivered record breaking results in construction and intermodal traffic which we hope to see continue in the year ahead,” she added.

And Philippa Edmunds, Freight on Rail manager at the Campaign for Better Transport, who regularly contributes to RTM, reiterated that rail is the safer, cleaner way to transport freight which reduces road congestion and improves productivity.

She added that it can help the government meet its challenging targets to reduce air pollution as it produces 90% less PM10 particulates and up to 15 times less nitrogen dioxide emissions than HGVs for the equivalent journey.

“Given these socio-economic benefits, the government must set affordable charges in its current ORR review and continue to upgrade the rail freight network to cater for the suppressed demand for consumer and bulk services,” concluded Edmunds.

Looking specifically at Q4 figures, total freight moved was 4.4 billion net tonne kilometres, an increase of 0.29 billion net tonne kilometres (5%) compared to the same quarter last year. But the ORR noted this is the second lowest Q4 total since the start of the quarterly time series in 1998- 99 Q1.

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Andy J   09/06/2017 at 12:05


Huguenot   09/06/2017 at 14:09

Given the Government's keenness to see CO2 emissions reduced, expressed through renewable subsidies, lower car tax rates for efficient engines etc, then there is a strong case for greater subsidy for rail freight, quite apart from reducing both congestion and the need for quite so much new road construction. Felixtowe to Nuneaton? Get on with it!

Manchester Mike   09/06/2017 at 14:53

Good to see coal use decrease, from an environment perspective. Hopefully other freight will be transported instead on freed up paths.

Noam Bleicher   13/06/2017 at 10:11

Why is this seen as a bad thing? There is vast unment demand for both passenger services and intermodal boxes. Surely removing a load of 60 mph bulk trainload traffic from the network will free up a load of capacity for faster trains?

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