Rail freight: Getting on the right track

This report examines the advantages and challenges of using rail to move goods, and highlights the need for a holistic rail strategy to meet the needs of the railway passenger and freight sectors on our network.

With increasing congestion on our roads and an 80% cut in CO2 emissions required by 2050, is this the time to be considering the value of rail to move goods around our nation?

Within the UK freight sector, road freight now contributes 92% of domestic freight-related emissions, and technology is unlikely to deliver the required reductions in CO2 emissions for this sector to meet its 2050 obligations.

With current projections estimating an 8% shift in the market share of freight movements from road to rail by 2030 this will still only deliver about 1% of the whole transport sector’s required emissions reductions against 1990 levels. Added to this, a 1% shift in freight from road to rail will deliver savings of approximately 0.2 million tonnes of CO2 yet require an increase in freight capacity of nearly 10%, the capacity challenge for the rail freight industry is massive.

This is the crux of the issue for the rail freight industry: the opportunity for rail freight to deliver significant CO2 savings is there, however the facilities to enable this are not. To see substantial CO2 reductions from the transport sector, the projected growth rates for rail freight need to be much higher. To achieve this, investment in rail, and some road, infrastructure needs to be substantial and ambitious.

Key recommendations

  1. The government should undertake a holistic review of the UK rail network and implement an even bolder investment programme which accommodates both passenger and freight requirements. In addition, a majority of UK sea ports should be linked with major towns and cities via rail to establish a freight ‘hub and spoke’ network. Finally, investment should be focused on increasing capacity of the network through improved signalling and traffic management, as well as the recently announced high-speed rail programme.
  2. Industry should be incentivised to use low-carbon distribution options to help reduce the transport sectors emissions in line with 2050 targets.
  3. We encourage the development of an industry and consumer ‘Low-Carbon Transit Impact’ labelling system to help consumers make educated environmental judgements when deciding on products – very much like the current ‘Air Freight’ labelling being introduced by some supermarkets. This is a continuation of the our ‘Green Ticketing’ proposal introduced in the 2008 Low-Carbon Mobility report, where all passenger ticketing for road, rail and air transportation would show the expected CO2 emissions value.
  4. The road and rail sectors should work together to develop more environmentally suitable solutions for industry, using rail for long-distance movement, HGVs for regional distribution and LGVs for local distribution. Indirectly this proposition would benefit the domestic road haulage industry as it would be best placed to service regional rail hubs.


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