Why we must stop Britain’s freight going off the rails

Thursday 5th January 2017




Robert Flello, a member of the Transport Select Committee and Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South
Go back to the 1960s and if anyone was talking about sustainability (and very few were), railways would not have figured high on anyone’s list.  What a difference fifty years makes.  Today, we wring our hands with regret over that which was lost on the word of poor, vilified Dr Beeching, whose crime was, after all, only writing the report for which he was asked.

When peering the other way, into the future of Britain’s railways, it is hard to see beyond the £56 billion (estimated so far) behemoth of HS2, the first usable part of which will not be up and running until 2026.  The final elements of the route will not be welcoming passengers until seven years after that, and passengers are all it will be welcoming.  HS2’s own literature states that: “The HS2 infrastructure has not been designed to accommodate traditional slow/heavy rail freight services.”  The Department for Transport estimates that 12 per cent of freight is moved by rail in the UK, compared to an average across Europe of more than 18 per cent and rising – the opposite of the UK trend.  HS2, on its own, will almost certainly makes things worse and not better.

That risks missing smaller, cheaper ways to improve transport capacity, boosting the economies of the regions and reducing environmental damage.  Take the GB Freight Route (GBFR) scheme.  That is a project to create a “new” dedicated freight train route from London, through the Midlands and into Scotland with a spur for Wales.  It would allow lorries to drive on and off with their loads, avoiding the current expensive and time-consuming practice of transferring goods from HGV to rail and back at the other end.  It would follow 480 miles of existing or disused track with a requirement for only fourteen “virgin” miles along the whole route.  Crucially, it would cost an estimated £6 billion, roughly 10 per cent of the HS2 budget and would take possibly five years to complete.  The potential would then be for lorries heading for, or coming from, the continent being driven onto a train within a few short miles of their point of origin and continuing under the Channel to another short hop from their destination.  The major supermarkets have already said they would expect to move 10,000 lorry journeys a week onto GBFR’s tracks, potentially rising quickly to 100,000.  There would be the capacity to take five million lorries a year off our roads, with the accompanying improvement in carbon terms.  According to the Freight on Rail group, “rail produces 70% less carbon dioxide emissions than the equivalent road journey and a gallon of diesel will carry a tonne of freight 246 miles by rail as opposed to 88 miles by road.”

The advantages for the freight and logistics sector are obvious, (and as this sector represents £55 billion, 5 per cent of GDP, they are advantages not to be sniffed at) but what about the ordinary traveller who HS2 is designed to help?  Firstly, freight and passenger services do not mix well on the existing rail network, and alleviating significant elements of the freight traffic would give more scope for more passenger-friendly schedules.  Secondly, most rail passengers are road users, too, and they are certainly tax-payers, two groups which will benefit hugely by cutting wear-and-tear on tarmac and removing many large and heavy wheels from the highways.
There will be implications for road hauliers but many will be positive because many journeys will be needed to and from the rail route and drivers will be able to undertake more trips within their limited hours.  Use of the route should reduce costs and congestion, as well as carbon.

So what is not to like?

In a post-Brexit world, one has to ask what is more sustainable for the railways and the nation: enormous infrastructure projects taking decades to complete and significantly longer to pay for, or ones which are smaller, easier and quicker to deliver?   GBFR or, indeed, something similar, has all the things going for it that HS2 does not: cost, deliverability, carbon positivity, lack of invasion of the Green Belt and unquestionable economic benefit.  We wait to see whether Sir John Armitt and the National Infrastructure Commission agree, but if they do, it might even be ready by the time the UK manages to sign its first trade deal.

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