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Rail freight: contributing to the DfT’s transport objectives

Philippa Edmunds Freight on Rail Manager Campaign for Better Transport London EC1M
06 July 2018

Freight on Rail urges the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) not to undervalue the socio-economic benefits of rail freight and the mode’s potential to further reduce congestion and pollution, the two key objectives of its study (‘NIC explores rail to road freight switch’ LTT 22 Jun). 

In its evaluation of the potential to transfer freight from road to rail, it must examine particular strategic freight corridors where there are parallel rail routes such as the A14, A34 and M6, as our DfT-sponsored research showed, rather than looking at averages across the network. 

The current 33 container trains both in and out of Felixstowe port each day remove 3,300 large HGVs from the A14 corridor to the Midlands and the branch line upgrades currently underway could help remove an additional 1,200 HGVs each day. The A14 corridor currently carries up to 6,500 of the largest HGVs (five & six-axle articulated lorries) a day. The strong benefit cost ratios for freight enhancements, typically in the range of 4:1 to 8:1, should be factored into rail investment planning. 

Given the Government support for rail freight in this statement “shifting freight from road to rail can result in significant greenhouse gas emission savings as well as economic and safety co-benefits” (Network Rail’s route strategic plan, 2018), it is disappointing that the NIC study is assessing the so-called “benefits” of moving freight from rail to road to free up capacity for passenger services. One question is, do passengers want to travel at night as that is when a lot of freight moves? 

The full external and congestion costs of HGVs need to be measured in this modal shift evaluation; HGVs are currently only paying a third of their congestion, road infrastructure, pollution and road crash costs, with the remainder being picked up by the taxpayer; these figures showing the extent of the HGV subsidy use DfT values and are in line with two other separate reports. 

Furthermore, the case for longer heavier lorries, another topic being considered by the NIC’s freight study, remains questionable as utilisation of existing sized HGVs remains disappointing: DfT statistics show that only 34 per cent of lorries were constrained by volume with empty running rising to 30 per cent in 2016. 

We do not dispute that bigger heavier trucks save the hauliers’ costs, because society and the economy currently picks up the bill. However, a distance-based lorry charging system, instead of the current time-based one, which would have a direct relationship to the amount of use of the network, would incentivise more efficient use of the road network and thereby reduce lorry miles. The per km charge for trucks reduced the percentage of empty vehicles in Germany by a third, down previously from similar levels as the UK; in Austria empty running was reduced by a quarter to 16 per cent and the average load grew 0.6 tonnes to 14.7.   

Lorry platooning is in its infancy, with motoring organisations opposed while the haulage industry remains sceptical. Carbon gains may only be around 5 per cent whereas rail freight reduces carbon by 76 per cent per tonne carried. Moreover, there are serious safety obstacles to platooning being practical in the UK because our road network is so congested with frequent exits close together. The apparent omission of safety analysis from the NIC freight study is misguided as the relative safety costs of the different modes need to be taken into account. Government figures show that the HGV involvement rate in reported accidents on urban roads is almost six times the rate of cars with the DfT valuing the prevention of each road fatality at £2m.

The NIC is aware that the public want more freight shifted to the railways and for Government to fund the necessary rail freight upgrades.

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