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Rail freight activity considerably down in Q1

Activity in the rail freight sector is declining compared to the same time last year, linked to a number of factors including the decline of the coal sector.

New statistics from the ORR show that the total volume of freight moved in the first quarter of 2016-17 was 4.2 billion net tonne kilometres, an 8.4% decrease compared to the same point in 2015-16.

There was an even sharper decline in freight lifted, which reached 18.8 million tonnes, a decrease of 15.3%.

The ORR report said a decrease in coal production was a “key driver” of the decline. The total volume of coal lifted decreased by 52.1% to 2.7 million tonnes. Coal moved fell by 61.4% to 0.25 billion net tonne kilometres, the lowest since records began in 1998.

The government has announced its intention to restrict the use of coal-fired power stations by 2023 and phase them out by 2025 on the grounds that gas power produces less greenhouse gas emissions. Data released yesterday showed that coal generated just 6% of the UK’s power this spring, a record low.

Metal transportation decreased by 13.4% because of the drop in global demand for steel and competition from imported steel.

Freight moved internationally fell by 36.7%, which the report said was partly due to tightened security at Calais because of the migrant crisis.

However, there were increases in the two biggest freight sectors: domestic intermodal (6.2% increase) and construction (2.2% increase).

The ORR said the increase in domestic freight was linked to a growth in GDP, while the increase in construction suggested freight activity had not yet caught up with the decline in construction following the EU referendum result.

There was a 2.3% increase in the ‘other’ sector, which includes biomass, an increasingly popular replacement for coal.

Maggie Simpson, executive director of the Rail Freight Group, said the growth in these “important sectors” showed “how rail freight continues to meet customer needs in changing markets”.

Philippa Edmunds, Freight on Rail Manager at Campaign for Better Transport, said: “These figures show the strength of rail freight in these key markets while it is adjusting to a steep decline in coal traffic.”

Total freight train kilometres in Q1 were 8.37 million, a 6.5% decrease from the previous year. Kilometres increased for two out of seven freight operators (Freightliner and Colas Freight). The company with the biggest decrease was Devon and Cornwall Railways, with a 37.1% decrease.

Previous figures suggest a similar decrease in the road sector. In 2014-15, total lorry freight kilometres were 1.54 billion, a 13.6% decrease from 2013-14.

The DfT recently published its rail freight strategy, which says that the freight industry needs to do more to “sell its collective benefits” and address problems such as a lack of network capacity and skills.

To view the strategy, click here.

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