Switching freight from road to rail makes economic and environmental sense – David Spaven

David Spaven, Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group
David Spaven, Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group
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Policy change is needed to encourage investment, explains David Spaven

An ambitious growth strategy for rail freight across Britain could generate between £75 billion and £90bn in environmental and economic benefits over the coming decade, a new report for the Rail Freight Group (RFG) has found. The study undertaken by Stephen Joseph Associates – “What level of ambition is achievable and worthwhile for rail freight?” – highlights how a new approach from national and local governments, along with continued investment from the rail industry, could unlock growth and wider benefits from reduced road congestion, improved road safety and less road damage by HGVs. There are also substantial carbon savings arising from a greater use of rail.

However, to achieve these benefits would require different public funding and policy frameworks to those now in place: higher levels of capital investment and revenue support and other complementary policies. Such an approach would encourage further significant private investment in rail freight services and terminals. The report highlights seven key measures to unlock growth:

Accelerated investment in the strategic rail freight network. This would unlock capacity and improve train efficiencies, in part through “loading gauge” enhancement to allow taller and wider containers to be carried by rail. However, investment in rail freight also needs to be considered as an alternative to road-only options for tackling congestion and improving safety on major road corridors: a more multi-modal approach to transport infrastructure spending and management is required.

The report for RFG highlights a classic Scottish example to illustrate the point that investment in road building without investment in rail capacity is likely to damage the growth prospects for rail freight. A 2014 study for the Scottish Government by AECOM into the upgrade of the A9 Perth-Inverness trunk road noted, “realistically the shorter journey times and improved reliability and resilience offered by the A9 dualling are going to lessen the potential switch from road to rail and all other things being equal, are likely to constrain future rail freight growth”.

Electrification of core routes to further improve rail’s environmental benefits: in addition to the investment in capacity and gauge enhancement, funding a sustained rolling programme of infill electrification over 10 years would create a strategic electric freight network covering 60 per cent of rail freight services. Electric locos improve acceleration and get trains to their destination faster for customers, freeing up paths on busy sections of the network – as well as bringing significant carbon benefits.

Investment and support for new rail freight services: significant market opportunities include city centre freight services to stations and consolidation hubs, and express freight on passenger trains, especially high-value lower-volume freight like parcels and fresh produce. These could link with restrictions on diesel trucks in cities, already being planned by many local authorities as part of Clean Air Zones

Reform of planning law to support a greater uptake of rail: the March 2019 Scottish rail freight growth strategy included a suggestion for enhancing planning guidance in Scotland to support rail-linked freight facilities. The RFG report supports this, and goes further, suggesting that freight generators like warehouses be required to be located at rail-connected sites.

Increased grants to encourage uptake: the report notes the welcome retention of Freight Facilities Grants in Scotland (helping to fund the capital costs of rail freight facilities), the scheme having been scrapped in England in 2011. Mode Shift Revenue Support grant is available throughout Britain, but it has very limited funding and could be expanded to support more freight flows and operate as a kick-start fund, akin to that used for some bus services, to provide public funding to underpin new traffic flows on rail.

Mainstreaming rail freight in transport and industrial policy: it is important that rail freight is considered within the UK and Scottish Governments’ wider industrial strategies, including in all regulation, planning and taxation measures applying to the freight and logistics sector, but also in policy for other sectors of the economy such as ports, automotive, energy and construction.

Road pricing for lorries: the benefits of the investment in and support for rail freight for this ambitious growth scenario will be enhanced if accompanied by distance-based road pricing for HGVs.

Lorries in the UK are already subject to a time-based levy, and the UK Government has discussed the option of moving towards a distance-based charge – which could be designed to recoup the full costs HGVs impose on society, including road damage. The RFG report highlights research which suggests that the combination of all these measures could save 40 per cent of the annual CO2 emissions from HGVs.

That in itself should be a persuasive argument. Taken with all the other environmental, safety and economic benefits of boosting rail freight, the case should be unanswerable.

David Spaven, Scottish representative, Rail Freight Group