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Giving freight a fair shake

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Philippa Edmunds, freight on rail manager, Campaign for Better Transport, makes a compelling argument to support a modal shift of freight from road to rail 

Rail freight is key to servicing the UK economy in a cleaner safer way which reduces road collisions and road infrastructure damage.

The latest analysis by KPMG showed that In 2016 rail freight generated economic benefits for UK Plc of £1.73 billion, which included productivity benefits of £1.17 billion for Britain’s businesses and external benefits of £0.56 billion, through lower road congestion and environmental gains.

Importantly, rail freight can help rebalance the UK economy, as more than 60 per cent of its activity is focussed in former industrial heartlands in Yorkshire and the Humber, north-west Scotland and the Midlands. Overall more than 87 per cent is outside of London and the South East.

And yet it is facing severe challenges; one of which is the shortage of infrastructure capacity, so continued government investment to unblock pinch-points and improve the capability of the Strategic Rail Freight Network, promised by the DfT, is crucial to satisfy customer demand, especially in the consumer and construction markets to enhance the links between the ports and key conurbations.

The strong benefit-cost ratios for freight enhancements – typically in the range of 4:1 to 8:1, highlighted in the latest Network Rail Route Strategic Plan – should be factored into investment planning.

Targeted rail freight upgrades work. The gauge upgrades out of Southampton Port increased rail’s market share from 29 to 36 per cent within a year and had a benefit-cost ratio of five to one. Government investment in rail freight is also 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 £2.8 billion of investment since 1994 to enhance capacity and improve performance and reliability.

Misaligned policies

Furthermore, Government freight policy on road and rail is not aligned, which means that the two different freight modes are not being treated equitably, either in terms of charging or in environmental policy. HGVs receive a large subsidy from the government which adds another barrier to enabling rail freight to compete on a level playing field, especially for consumer traffic.

The reality is that HGVs only pay a third of the costs they impose in terms of congestion, fatalities, road damage and pollution, with the taxpayer picking up the rest. Since 2011, diesel fuel duty has been frozen and yet rail freight charges have increased by 22 per cent. Yet the latest Office of Rail and Road (ORR) proposed future rail freight charging would exacerbate this market distortion as it is currently recommending that freight charges go up by 29 per cent between 2019 and 2029. This measure would further tip the balance in favour of HGVs, resulting in freight transferring back to road as well as preventing future expansion of rail freight.

While the Clean Air Strategy says that the government wants to accelerate the shift from road to rail, its Department for Transport plans could stack the cards in favour of HGVs.

Its policy ‘Road to Zero’ excludes HGVs from the ban to sell new diesel cars and vans from 2040. And yet rail freight is being penalised both by the DfT halt to electrification, and its diesel-only ban for rail locomotives from 2040 despite the fact that rail freight locomotives emit far less carbon dioxide and air pollution than HGVs, for the equivalent journey.

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, which is tried and tested, when there is no alternative fuel in the pipeline to match it.

Electrification is being rolled out across the rest of Europe; EU statistics show that the UK is now trailing at a woeful 20th in the league table of electrified lines in Europe. Julian Worth, a rail freight expert, makes the case for a modest re-wiring of around 320 key miles over a 30-year period which could see two-thirds of rail freight moved by electric traction. If government commits to investment over a period, then the rail freight operators can build the business case for new locomotives.

In terms of skills, the unions continue to work with the industry to take advantage of government support for apprenticeships and to enable the industry to become a more diverse workforce.


The development and funding of the Digital Railway, through the European Rail Traffic Management System (ERTMS), provides an opportunity to unlock existing capacity constraints and enable future growth in the rail freight sector. Currently the deployment strategy of ERTMS is unclear and Network Rail is developing a series of strategic outline business cases to understand where deployment would offer the greatest value in CP6.

Freight operators are preparing for future deployment with the fitment of three first-in-class locomotive types already underway. A commercial framework has been signed between Network Rail and the freight operators to ensure that the fitment of the ETCS in-cab signalling system on board freight locomotives is appropriately funded and aligned to the deployment plans on the rail network.

Even though freight does not have a vote the government should listen to the public as well as taking the relative safety costs of road and rail into account; the DfT values the prevention of each road fatality at £2 million.

A recent questionnaire from Brake, the national road safety charity, showed that 79 per cent of car drivers want to see less freight on the roads on safety grounds; government figures show HGVs are almost seven times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal crashes on minor roads. Furthermore, 79 per cent of drivers want the government to fund the necessary rail network upgrades to transfer the freight to rail.

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