Rail freight must be a bigger part of the solution to the climate emergency – Joe O’Donnell

Switching goods from road to rail offers a ‘quick win’, argues Joe O’Donnell

Joe O’Donnell, Head of Policy, Rail Freight Group
Joe O’Donnell, Head of Policy, Rail Freight Group

The coronavirus is the most dramatic period of change I, and probably most people alive today, have lived through. The realities of the rising death toll, life in lockdown and worries about family and friends’ vulnerability has eclipsed experiences of previous crisises.

Yet coronavirus is not just affecting us all personally, it is having deep impacts on the economies of Scotland, the UK and the world. The long-term impacts, like those of the 2008 financial crash and September 11, will no doubt take years to play out. The Rail Freight Group is working with its members to understand how they are being affected by the crisis and what can be done to support them through this exceptional period.

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We all have more time now to think about the kind of world we want to live in. The lockdown has offered glimpses of a better future by dramatically reducing Scottish cities’ air pollution. Glasgow’s Hope Street saw a 73 per cent drop in NO2 concentrations compared to a similar period in 2019. There is a growing wave of those arguing that we should take advantage of this unique chance for a reset, by planning for a better future rather than trying to get back to business as usual.

What does a better future look like for rail freight? David Spaven, who did a wonderful job as the Rail Freight Group’s Scottish Representative, gave me an overview of Scottish issues when he stepped down at the end of March. I was struck by how forward thinking Scotland is in many respects such as its retention of the freight facilities grant which has been abolished in England, and the 7.5 per cent rail freight growth target the Scottish Government set in 2017.

But there is still room for improvement. The ‘National Transport Strategy 2’ published in February was a big missed opportunity. Despite the fact that switching freight from road to rail reduces carbon emissions by around 76 per cent and thus has an important role to play in helping to tackle the climate emergency, rail freight is not mentioned at all in the 61-page document.

Switching freight from road to rail can offer a “quick win”, as it involves performing the same activity whilst creating less carbon, rather than trying to do things completely differently (often relying on untried technological solutions), as is often the climate change prescription in other sectors.

The National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4), which is currently out for consultation, is an opportunity for the Scottish Government to show how its commitment to tackling the climate emergency can work in practice. The Environment Strategy for Scotland set out the impressive ambition of ending Scotland’s contribution to climate change by 2045. This mission must permeate every aspect of society, including planning, to succeed.

So how does planning relate to rail freight? A key issue in NPF4 is what infrastructure does Scotland need to realise its ambitions and what transport connections are needed to support future development. These questions will be especially important if, in a post-corona world, infrastructure investment is used to stimulate the economy.

We believe that the infrastructure NPF4 must include the electrification and enhancement of freight routes to enable larger trains to run more often and to secure cost-effective rail freight operations around Scotland and cross-border to England. Suitable new rail terminal sites should also be identified to complete the strategic inter-urban network. Once this key infrastructure is in place, rail freight will be able to get more goods off the roads, reducing pollution and congestion.

The planning system is also key to ensuring that environmental issues are designed into future development from the start and are not just an afterthought. The planning system should encourage all infrastructure projects and new development to use rail freight to transport construction materials by rail to reduce the number of heavy aggregate lorries travelling through communities.

Rail freight already has much to thank Scotland for. Let us hope that post-corona the Scottish Government will translate the time we’ve all had to reassess the way we want to live, into further real policy changes to support our sector in delivering dramatic carbon emission reductions in the immediate future.

The deadline for the NPF4 call for ideas has been extended from 31 March to 30 April. The Rail Freight Group will be responding and we urge the public to add their weight to our calls to prioritise rail freight to reduce carbon emissions as quickly as possible.

Joe O’Donnell, Head of Policy, Rail Freight Group


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