Cleaner and greener freight

Rail freightWith the UK Government having set tough emission reduction targets, Tony Berkeley, chairman of the Rail Freight Group, looks at rail freight’s role in the future of carbon reduction

The UK’s rail freight sector is attracting increasing attention from non-traditional customers such as high street retailers and supermarkets, as they challenge some of the old assumptions about how best to transport goods from ports to their distribution centres. Many of them now recognise that not only is rail far more cost effective than they previously thought, but also that it has huge potential to cut the amount of carbon emissions that get emitted as part of their supply chains.

This growing interest is leading the drive for fresh and accurate data on just how big a role rail can play and whether current carbon reduction targets need to be rethought to incorporate rail to a far greater extent.

Lack of support
Rail freight has long been recognised as being a considerably more environmentally friendly form of transporting goods than road, with one train taking the goods of up to 50 trucks. Despite this obvious advantage, however, the support for the rail freight sector has in the past been sometimes underwhelming, both from business (who often love the idea of shifting goods from road to rail but are not quite confident enough to dip more than a toe in the water) and the UK Government, who with one hand openly support the sector as the way forwards and with the other remove very helpful grant support. This was recently highlighted with the axing of Freight Facilities Grants in England, a decision that the Rail Freight Group is fighting to get overturned. In Scotland, campaigning by the RFG led to a reversal of the decision, albeit with a reduced budget of £2m.

Carbon reduction targets
The UK Government has rightly committed itself to continue to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from business, with a massive goal of achieving an 80 per cent reduction in CO2 by 2050, compared with the output levels in 1990. It’s a very tough ask, particularly for the Department for Transport (DfT), which has said that UK domestic transport makes up some 21 per cent of all CO2 emissions in the country. These are forecast to be around 14 per cent lower by 2020 compared to 2008 leaving a huge margin to make up in order to reach their goal. It is unclear, however, whether there is any relationship between this and the 1990 baseline, or of the likely forecast changes in traffic volumes and emissions between 1990, now and 2050. This is worrying, as the above 80 per cent reduction uses 1990 as a base year. The reductions in emissions from the 2008 levels used by the DfT are likely to be even greater, perhaps nearer to 90 per cent.

Emissions from diesel-powered trains only make up 1.8 per cent of total transport emissions, showing how little impact the rail freight sector has overall. The small figure belies the potential of the mode however, and the vital importance of modal shift.

Finding a solution
The DfT has not yet found a solution to the problem of how road freight can operate using 90 per cent less carbon emissions than at present. Eco-driving and more efficient engines are expected to help, but nothing that will be enough for the reductions in CO2 that are estimated to be needed. If the costs of freight transport go up faster than the costs of manufacture, then there may be a reduction in the transfer of the latter to low wage areas of the world, and a reduction in the movement of semi-finished products over longer distances. Clearly, shorter distances hauled will help, as will electric short distance deliver vehicles, but it is difficult to accept that there will be much, if any, reduction in demand for longer distance freight movements. At a recent conference on freight in London, it was suggested that a battery powered HGV had been designed; the only problem was that the battery weighed 52 tonnes!

Rail freight alone can provide the lower emissions transport over medium and longer distances and this is starting to be recognised. Per tonne km, diesel-hauled rail freight produces one third of the CO2 emissions compared with road, and virtually no emissions when electrically hauled.

A recent report by independent consultants MDS Transmodal found that 57 per cent of road freight relates to journeys over 150 km, and suggested that it would be necessary for about 80 per cent of the current road freight travelling over this distance to transfer to rail to achieve even a 50 per cent reduction in overall CO2 emissions from the freight sector. To achieve 90 per cent, one must effectively have the entire sector electrically powered, either by road or rail. Of course, rail freight is already forecast to increase by more than 80 per cent between 2008 and 2030.

Achieving the goals
To achieve these greater carbon reductions, much more is required of the rail freight sector, to provide around five or six times the current volumes of rail freight, including: electrification of the main freight routes; a significantly rise in warehousing and transfer points for freight between road and rail; five or six more trains for every freight train currently operating.

This is achievable, but only with additional infrastructure in conjunction with longer trains – possibly coupled two together for trunk hauls, better signalling to increase capacity and, of course, the above additional terminals.

Government policies would also have to change with a combination of fuel duties, carbon charges (through the trading scheme or by other means) or an increase in the price of oil would have to move the price of fuel up to the point when rail was competitive for a much wider range of flows than at present. The rail network would need a step change in capacity, by a combination of better signalling, longer loops or additional tracks, some new lines for passenger and possibly freight flows, to cope with the additional demand for freight trains and, no doubt, more passengers as well. Planning policies would have to change also, to encourage easier development of the wide variety and number of freight interchanges, terminals etc, as well as encouraging the use of passenger stations for town and city deliveries.

Passenger and freight trains
Finally, the mix of trains on the main network would become more evenly balanced between passenger and freight trains. On the West Coast Main Line, for example, there might be eight freight trains per hour between Crewe and Nuneaton, compared with seven Virgin West Coast trains. Some routes could be designated primary freight routes, some including high speed lines, primary passenger routes.

This will all need an efficient and independent infrastructure manager capable and able to operate more effectively than at present, but with a national timetable that provides for 24/7 running for freight, using diversion routes as necessary, improved signalling and train control, all of which will need money. It will not work if passenger operators control the timetable or the maintenance of the track; in fact, it would be more equitable for a freight operator to do this, except that they are in real competition with each other and having one in charge of the infrastructure would be totally unacceptable – as well as being illegal under the EU First Railway Package.

The carbon saved would be between 9 and 18 per cent of the DfT’s emissions in the only sector where it really has no solution to the challenge of reducing overall emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

A dramatic increase in rail freight, as well as in sea freight for coastal flows, is required if the government has any hope of meeting its target of reducing CO2 emissions in transport by 80 per cent by 2050. This will require some significant policy shifts in planning and transport generally, as well as the provision of a structure for the rail industry to enable it to happen.

About RFG
The Rail Freight Group (RFG) has over 150 member companies, ranging from Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping line, to high street retailer Marks & Spencer. Our members include customers, logistics providers, suppliers, terminal operators, ports and freight train operating companies.

RFG’s aim is to promote cost effective rail solutions for freight. RFG works hard in the interests of its members; to represent their views and provide a wide range of advice and information.

The Rail Freight Group seeks to achieve its objectives by organising meetings and visits, by responding to consultation papers and by lobbying government, European Institutions, the Office of Rail Regulation and Network Rail. One of its major successes was the inclusion in the 1993 Railways Act of a duty on the government and Rail Regulator (now Office of Rail Regulation) to promote rail freight.

RFG also looks to involve the media in positive comment and news where possible, and publishes a newsletter, circulated to nearly 2,000 opinion formers, generally every two months.  

For more information:
Tel: +44 (0)20 31160007

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