Rail freight is ready to battle climate change
Ian Brown, Railfuture Policy Director and former rail freight manager, looks at the prospects for freight on rail following COP26 with the creation of Great British Railways.
The UK government published its Environmental Benefits of Rail Freight in June. It was part of the government's Rail Environment Policy Statement, setting the scene to give Great British Railways a statutory duty to promote rail freight. Environmental sustainability will be a key component of an imminent 30-year plan for the railway.
The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, published in May, advocated a long-term plan to transform the railways. A comprehensive environmental plan, expected next year, will establish rail as the backbone of a cleaner future transport system. Setting the "direction of travel" policy for the whole railway, including freight, is crucial. The listed priorities are:
Modal transfer from road to rail (passengers and freight) is exceptionally effective in achieving overall net zero objectives for transport. We need a total transport policy in which achieving these objectives for rail is a subset of the overall initiative. This is particularly important for rail freight. A freight train hauled by a two-stroke diesel locomotive is far better than a convoy of road vehicles in achieving emission reductions, but it is not net zero. A freight train hauled by an electric locomotive is net zero, if the source of power generation is net zero. Carrying no freight at all on a diesel railway quickly achieves the narrow rail objective of net zero, but does not contribute to an overall transport objective. This is not the answer.
Electrification will take time, particularly if there are no targets, nor the establishment of a rolling programme of electrification deploying competent teams, learning with experience. The policy statement recognised that decarbonising rail freight is a challenge. The risk though is that nothing much will happen. However, short infill electrification schemes are recognised as delivering quick benefits, to enable rail freight operators to switch to electric traction.
A national freight coordination scheme will be set up with, in due course, a freight growth target. We therefore need a policy that encourages modal shift to rail, followed by a rolling programme of investment in electrification to achieve net zero for the rail freight operation. The government followed up the policy statement by issuing in October its Net Zero Strategy for the UK, which is not specifically rail related but which focuses on unlocking investment in clean and green industries.
What needs to happen to encourage the transfer of freight on to railways?
The economics of freight on rail depend on its value to the environment being recognised. Pricing must enable a shift to rail and be stable so hauliers can invest with confidence in freight facilities. The recent sudden electricity price rise, up to a 100% increase, has forced Freightliner to move from electric to diesel haulage as it has to be competitive to survive. Coinciding with COP26, this was not a good look. Open-access has been an outstanding success for rail freight. The rail freight operators have risen to the challenge, investing in equipment and flexible working.
The Williams-Shapps plan maintains a fully open-access railway with no state subsidised operator, unlike many other railways in continental Europe. The rail freight industry must be able to plan for the long term, and be able to rely on stable, realistic access charges which reflect the value to the country of using rail. Rail freight can no longer be treated as some form of marginal activity where the passenger operators grudgingly accept freight on the network.
Capacity for freight
Rail freight has increasingly become a long-distance operation, a far cry from local trips from pits to power stations. This applies to intermodal freight and also to bulk freight such as aggregates from the Peak District to just about everywhere on the rail network. It is essential therefore that the network has the latent capacity to allow new freight flows to be introduced.
A major benefit of HS2 is to unleash capacity for more freight trains on the West Coast main line, the UK's most important freight corridor. This is good, but not enough in itself to facilitate a major shift to rail. There are other areas where capacity needs to be provided and safeguarded for rail freight, both on the rail network and at terminals.