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Shifting goods from rail to road could help fight climate change, says NIC


Andrew Forster
26 April 2019

Freight traffic may have to be switched from rail to road in order to decarbonise England’s freight sector, the National Infrastructure Commission has recommended. 

The NIC’s new report on freight says the Government should commit to decarbonising the entire freight sector by 2050 to support the Climate Change Act target of an 80 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 against 1990 levels.

“Road and rail freight should have a common, single target to decarbonise fully by 2050. No part of the freight system should be indirectly subsidised by being allowed to emit carbon when other parts are decarbonising.”

The NIC believes road freight can be decarbonised either by batteries or hydrogen fuel cell technology. But it says neither are  practical alternatives to diesel for rail freight, and warns that further network electrification could be prohibitively expensive and disruptive to existing rail users. The only other way to decarbonise would be to switch goods to zero emission lorries, it says.

The NIC was asked by the Chancellor Philip Hammond in November 2017 to investigate the future of freight. It was not instructed to recommend ways of achieving complete decarbonisation. The inquiry was led by commission chair Sir John Armitt and commissioners Bridget Rosewell (an independent director on Network Rail’s board), and Andy Green. 

The Commission says the Government should announce plans by the end of 2021 to ban the sale of new diesel-powered HGVs no later than 2040.

In the short-term, the NIC says mode shift from road to  rail and water “will continue to have a helpful role in managing air quality and carbon emissions from domestic freight transport while HGVs continue to use diesel”. 

On decarbonising HGVs, it says: “Battery electric and hydrogen are both emerging as the most viable alternatives to diesel and it is expected that commercially available vehicles will be available from the beginning of the 2020s.

Battery electric could be a promising option for decarbonising HGVs, it says. “A small number of lighter electric models designed for shorter urban journeys have been available commercially since 2010. Heavy battery electric HGVs are currently at an advanced stage of development, with Tesla and Daimler due to launch heavy battery electric HGVs at the beginning of the 2020s, the former claiming an 800km range.”

Hydrogen fuel cell HGVs convert compressed hydrogen into electric energy to drive motors, with water being the only by-product. 

“Hydrogen-powered vehicles  have a long range, rapid refuelling times and hydrogen can be dispensed from refuelling stations in a similar way to the existing network of diesel stations,” says the NIC. 

“There are currently no commercially available hydrogen HGVs, but a number of manufacturers, including Toyota, Nikola and Hyundai have been demonstrating and testing the technology, and it is expected that the first models will become commercially available from the start of the 2020s.”

Both options will require significant infrastructure investment. “Recharging battery electric HGV fleets is likely to require grid reinforcements, smart charging, energy storage, or a combination of these elements, to enable depot charging.

“Hydrogen HGVs would require additional hydrogen production facilities, though the infrastructure implications beyond this will depend upon developments outside of the transport sector itself, particularly whether the UK’s heating supply network is converted to carry hydrogen.”

The decision on whether HGVs transition to battery electric, hydrogen, or dual fuel will be market-led, “but the speed of uptake will be determined by government policy, cost and developments in the wider European commercial vehicle market”.

The Commission is sceptical about installing overhead electrification on the road network – e-highways. “The need for significant coverage of overhead wires on much of the UK’s strategic road network (and highways in Europe) before operators would invest in vehicles make these options appear less attractive.

“There is a risk of e?highways becoming stranded assets as competing zero emission options continue to develop and fall in price in the time between infrastructure being delivered and before hauliers have confidence to invest in compatible vehicles. While it is possible that ehighways could provide at least part of the decarbonisation solution, particularly for long?haul activities, they alone will not decarbonise all HGVs.”

On the options for decarbonising rail freight, the NIC says: “Electrification is expensive and disruptive during construction to all rail users, but is a proven technology and could turn out to be cheaper and quicker than other approaches. 

“New hydrogen or battery- powered trains could enable rail freight operations on existing infrastructure, but these are likely to be expensive, could require high levels of public subsidy, and it is not currently clear when or if these could be available.”

The NIC says hydrogen and battery electric power “show promise for lightweight passenger trains and could become options for freight in the longer term, possibly in bi-mode locomotives capable of bridging electrified and non electrified sections”. 

“However, the high energy requirements of freight trains mean the low energy densities of hydrogen and batteries could involve replacing revenue earning cars with a fuel tank or batteries, or increasing the lengths of trains to accommodate the onboard energy. 

“Delivering carbon-free rail freight using either electrification or alternative fuels is likely to entail very significant costs for infrastructure or new locomotives,” the NIC adds. “But without these costs being paid, most likely from public expenditure, the only other way for rail freight to be carbon-free would be for it to transfer to other modes, such as zero emission HGVs. 

“The additional traffic and congestion created could come with a very significant economic cost,” the NIC admits. “It may be possible to alleviate some of the congestion impacts through a package of road investments, although the costs are likely to be significant and it may not always be feasible or desirable to create additional road capacity.

“The Government will need to take a decisive role in determining how emissions from?rail freight should be reduced to zero, and consider whether this involves rail?freight subsidies to support transition to new zero emission locomotives, further electrification, or road upgrades.” 

The NIC says more detailed work is needed to choose which option, or combination of options,  represents the best approach. “Assessing the costs and benefits of the different options will require a corridor-based approach and extensive cross?modal transport and economic modelling. 

“The long investment cycles of the railway mean that the Government must start this detailed work now, setting itself up for a decision by 2021 on which option (or combination of options) it is going to pursue, in advance of Network Rail’s Control Period 7 and the third Road Investment Strategy.”

Under the leadership of its previous chair Lord Adonis, the Commission had championed lorry platooning, arguing that rail freight flows could be diverted to lorry platoons, so freeing up the rail network for more passenger trains. The final report is less positive about platooning.

“The congestion benefits of lorry platooning, which in theory reduces the amount of road space that lorries occupy (among other benefits, such as improved fuel efficiency), are unproven in the context of the UK’s road network,” it says. 

The NIC wants a Freight Leadership Council set up, bringing together Government departments, devolved administrations, and the freight sector to drive forward key issues such as decarbonisation.

The Freight Transport Association said the 2040 target for banning the sale of new diesel lorries was feasible with Government support. On rail, Christopher Snelling, the Association’s head of UK policy, said: “The FTA is calling on the Government to make the necessary investments in electrification or appropriate alternative fuel to enable rail services to move to a zero-carbon-future. The FTA is very concerned about how the recommendation to consider road-based alternatives to busy rail corridors will be taken forward.” 

Road Haulage Association chief executive Richard Burnett said the report’s recommendations were “simplistic” and failed to spell out how the Government should lead a realistic, supportive transition from diesel. “New technology is welcome but it needs to be practical and affordable. A premature switch to zero-emissions lorries would disproportionately impact small freight operators.” He said the call to ban the sale of new diesel lorries by 2040 was not credible given there were no viable alternatives yet on the market.

Planning guidance for freight urged

The National Infrastructure Commission wants the Government to prepare new guidance about freight for local authorities.

Planning guidance should be prepared by the end of 2020, and should cover matters such as: 

• providing and protecting sufficient land/floorspace for storage and distribution activities on the basis of population and economic need, with particular consideration for the floorspace requirements for last mile distribution and consolidation centres; 

• supporting the clustering of related activities within a supply chain, minimising the distance that goods must be moved and maximising the potential for efficient operations; 

• maximising the potential for freight trips to be made at off-peak times; and 

• accommodating deliveries and servicing activity at the point of delivery. 

The NIC suggests that consolidation centres would be made more viable if logistics operators were given incentives to make use of them, for instance by giving consolidated services reduced loading/unloading restrictions at the kerbside. 

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