Manifesto for rail freight growth

RFG with the Rail Freight Operators Association has produced a set of papers that argue for a strong commitment to rail freight from political parties in their manifestos for the next UK general election

Written By Tony Berkeley, Chairman, Rail Freight Group

The Rail Freight Group and the Rail Freight Operators Association have published 10 campaign papers as a Manifesto for Rail Freight Growth, directed at the political parties that may form a government after next year’s general election. The manifesto explains how, with the right political support, rail freight can improve UK competitiveness and reduce UK carbon emissions. The 19-page manifesto calls on the political parties to:

  • protect the current structure of the railway to give confidence to private sector investors
  • support the Strategic Freight Network and create capacity and capability for rail freight growth
  • encourage an ever more efficient rail industry which is open for business 24/7
  • provide an efficient planning framework for rail freight terminals
  • sustain the current environmental benefit schemes
  • ensure all modes of freight transport contribute to the external costs they cause, and 
  • say ‘No’ to longer and heavier lorries.

Rail freight has demonstrated its success by a 60 per cent growth in business since privatisation, encouraged by governments. However, in this economic climate where rail freight is the only part of the railway not controlled by government, it is essential that all parties commit to give the political support necessary for rail freight to grow
Industry efficiency is the key to achieving growth. The rail freight industry and Network Rail all have to play their part in reducing costs. The principle that rail freight pays only for the wear and tear that it imposes on the rail network must be retained, and government, politicians and stakeholders must eliminate or reduce externally imposed costs that are borne by the rail freight industry

The green form of transport
Carbon reduction is much in the news at present in the run-up to the Copenhagen conference in December. The Stern Report (2007) stated: “Governments, businesses and individuals all need to work together to respond to the challenge. Strong, deliberate policy changes by governments are essential to motivate change. But the task is urgent.”
The UK is committed by statute to an 80 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2050, and reductions are therefore necessary across all sectors. Government data shows that transport represents around 23 per cent of UK domestic CO2 emissions and within that, freight transport contributes just over 30 per cent, which comes almost entirely from road freight.
On average, rail freight produces 3.4 times less CO2 per tonne-km than road transport. Thus if a movement of goods switches to rail freight there will be a 70 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions compared to the equivalent road journey, providing the opportunity to save 4.6 million tonnes of CO2 per year by 2030.
Not only does using more rail freight reduce CO2 emissions, it is also more energy efficient. In these times of increasingly insecure and volatile oil supplies switching to transport modes that use less fuel will become vital to secure the future of the British economy. Encouraging modal shift from road to rail is therefore an easy way to secure significant reductions in transport carbon emissions.

International traffic

Three main types of international traffic are handled by our ports or the Channel Tunnel; intermodal containers, both deep-sea and from the continent, Ro-Ro freight and bulk cargoes such as coal.
In 2005 the UK imported 46.6 million tonnes of coal of which over 90 per cent of this was transported by rail to coal fired power stations. These in turn generated some 35 per cent of the UK’s electricity demand. Imported volumes in the future will depend on the government’s energy policy.
For container traffic, in 2005 there were 7m 20ft equivalent units (TEU) moved through UK ports and forecast by the DfT to increase to 19.3 million TEU in 2030. For Ro-Ro traffic, 8 million units moved through UK ports (including the Channel Tunnel) in 2005 and this is forecast to increase to 16 million units by 2030.
Traffic through our ports will continue growing during the next 20 years. Rail freight can play a major part in ensuring more efficient and environmentally friendly transport of freight between ports or the Channel Tunnel and inland destinations. To achieve this we need a network of gauge-cleared routes for higher containers.
As goods get lighter with more packaging, demand for larger containers has grown, and the standard height is increasing from 8’6” high to 9’6” high. By 2012 50 per cent of all containers moving into and out of the UK are expected to be 9’6” high. This drives the need to ‘gauge clear’ rail routes from the major UK ports to enable these higher boxes to be transported by rail on standard UK wagons. Work has already started to clear a network of routes in the UK but further commitment is needed to ensure that the missing links and diversionary routes are cleared to enable rail freight operators to offer a reliable service seven days a week in competition with road.

The level playing field
Ensuring that rail freight is treated fairly with road freight and passenger rail will encourage growth. End users will choose rail for moving freight if it is competitive with other modes and aligns with their logistics needs. Rail is not chosen for altruistic reasons although its sustainability credentials will reinforce a decision made on economic grounds. The rail freight industry recognises that its success will be driven by its own efforts but we will identify and press for the abolition of unfair rules, regulations and attitudes that undermine our efforts to play a larger role in the UK’s freight transport mix.
Rail is the safest form of surface transport. The rail industry does not seek to gain competitive advantage by advertising the fact. Safe operation arises from highly structured rules and regulations and on the very few occasions they fail the resulting headlines are driven, in part, by the rarity of the event. Safety compliance is not an option – nor is it cheap. All we ask is that the same approach is applied to all modes. In Great Britain in 2007 there were 10,688 accidents involving Heavy Goods Vehicles. 461 HGVs were involved in fatal accidents and 435 people died as a result.
The maximum weight of an HGV in Great Britain is 44 tonnes. Proposals to introduce heavier vehicles – of up to 84 tonnes – have been rejected by the present government. We urge politicians of all parties to maintain this approach and to lobby the European Union to ensure that heavier lorries are not imposed on the UK. Rail freight’s competitiveness would be severely undermined by changes in lorry weights and dimensions with potentially the complete loss of all intermodal traffic and up to 50 per cent of bulk traffic to road.
The rail industry itself does not always handle freight issues in an even-handed way. The allocation of capacity between users of the network, especially as demand for rail increases across the board, is becoming an issue especially on major arterial routes such as the Midland Main Line and East Coast Main Line. The Department for Transport, as specifier of passenger franchises, must have regard for all users of the network. Two franchises have been let in the last two years without regard for the existing and future capacity requirements of rail freight. Stakeholders must work with the rail freight industry as franchise specifications are being developed rather than trying to fit a quart into a pint pot.

Steaming ahead
To deliver a doubling of rail freight in 20 years, it will need additional capacity in the future. We have welcomed the government’s £200m investment in the Strategic Freight Network Capacity but we need continuing support for more of it and for the Sustainable Distribution Fund, which buys environmental, congestion and safety benefits, by paying a subsidy to move a container by rail instead of road where rail is unable to compete with road on price. It offers high value to money to government with an average benefit to cost ratio is 4:1.
These 10 campaign papers set out what is needed to deliver this growth, to the benefit of the environment and to the UK’s competitiveness. No big changes are necessary but the industry needs the confidence and policy continuity from government to ensure that the structure is in place to enable the private sector to achieve the growth in volumes and service quality that customers require.
We are urging all political parties to recognise the importance of rail freight and, in their election manifestos, commit not only to words of support but actions to enable this growth to be achieved.

Freight facts

  • Movement of deep-sea containers by rail in the UK has increased by 78 per cent since 1996
  • The UK government forecasts that container traffic will grow by 175 per cent by 2030
  • Each week freight trains leave Britain for Spain, Italy and Germany via the Channel Tunnel
  • 42 million tonnes of imported coal are moved  by rail annually, keeping the UK’s lights on 
  • In Manchester some 50 per cent of containerised goods imported from outside of Europe are transported by train within the UK.

For more information
Manifesto for Rail Freight Growth can be found on

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