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Rail Freight must be Part of the Solution to Congested Roads and to Making Logistics Greener

Railfreight LocomotiveBritain's roads are congested, noisy and polluting. Road transport by HGVs is expensive, unpopular and a major contributor to harmful climate change.

Now Chris MacRae, a rail expert at the Freight Transport Association (FTA), in an article in Rail Technology Magazine last year, has claimed that shippers often overlook the advantages that rail freight can bring to the logistics mix. While admitting that rail freight has inherent limitations and can only rarely provide every link in the logistics chain, he argues that, depending on the nature of the goods, the distances involved and the locations of the end-users, rail freight for a high enough proportion of the journey can achieve surprising savings in both cost and time.

His most spectacular example is the 50% saving compared to sea of rail transport between China and Western Europe. The typical 16-day transit time along the 7,500 route rail route, despite crossing nine countries and involving several guage changes is claimed to be suitable for valuable, non-perishable goods, such as car parts, clothing, luxury items and electrical and electronic consumer goods and bespoke equipment. Whilst there is no saving in terms of time compared to airfreight, the cost savings of rail transport are even greater.

For northwestern Europe a large rail trans-shipment centre at Duisberg in Germany serves as a convenient and practical entrepot for delivery to multiple final destinations. For the UK, trains proceed through the Channel Tunnel and via HS1 to the International Railfreight Terminal at Barking.

However because of the UK's elongated geography, even though savings as spectacular as intercontinental railfreight do not arise, nevertheless useful savings and public policy objectives can still be achieved. The following types of traffic are those where railfreight can really score:

  • intermodal container traffic
  • bulk materials; stone, steel, coal (now fast declining), biomass, scrap, waste, construction materials, motor vehicles, road and rail aggregates
  • food and drink; wine, agricultural produce, supermarket stock
  • hazardous materials

A14 Traffic at PresentChris MacRae has pointed out that most of the growth has up to now been from existing categories with some cargo common on the continent, e.g. loaded lorries, almost entirely absent. Of course, away from international routes like HS1, the UK's restricted loading gauges are a handicap.

Network Rail have an ambitious 30% railfreight growth target and customers have identified 7 ways in which railfreight could be helped to be more competitive than road.

  1. 15% cost reduction
  2. Six-hour response times to service and alteration requests
  3. 7-day a week railway availability
  4. Train lengths increased by 17.5%
  5. Quadrupled capacity at railfreight terminals
  6. £50 intermodal transfer cost reduction
  7. £50 reduction in Channel Tunnel charges and rates.

This will require government support - but so will almost any move to reduce road congestion and to reduce pollution.