Lindsay Durham discusses the importance of rail freight, and how this mode of transportation has the potential to deliver environmental, safety and efficiency benefits

Most of us don’t give any thought to where our purchases at the supermarket come from or how they get there, and many won’t appreciate that the goods they are buying have actually been transported by train. In reality, the rail freight sector plays a very important part in all our everyday lives.

More and more customers are choosing to use rail on key trunk movements. Over the last 15 years, the amount of deep-sea and domestic containers transported by rail has increased by 99 per cent, with over one million containers moved by rail annually. The majority of these are from the UK’s major deep-sea container ports which act as a gateway to the UK from the rest of the world.

The rail freight sector plays a vital role in connecting local businesses to global markets. Goods for export can be loaded in a container today, transported to regional hubs (Freightliner has eight strategically placed around the country) and onto direct and reliable trains, enabling businesses to get their products onto ships the next day.

It is not only in the movement of containers that rail plays a vital role; another key sector is the movement of aggregates and cement into cities and towns, supporting housebuilding, road maintenance and other developments in urban areas where materials are not available locally. Delivering materials by rail into the heart of conurbations has many advantages as one train replaces up to 76 Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) movements and produces three quarters less carbon per tonne mile, as well as delivering considerable improvements on local air quality.

The congested nature of the UK’s road network is another reason that many businesses are turning to rail to deliver their materials. Average rail unplanned delays of 4.4 seconds per mile compare to average delays on the national strategic road network of 9.4 seconds per mile. Using rail reduces congestion on Britain’s road network, freeing up capacity on key roads for other users. Overall a whopping 1.6 billion HGV kilometres per year are saved by using rail freight.

If the UK is serious about leading the way in meeting a net zero carbon target by 2050, then increasing the volumes of freight moved by rail is one of the solutions that can really make a difference. Comparing diesel trains to HGVs, there is already a 76 per cent saving in carbon produced per freight tonne mile moved. Investments by rail freight operators and the government have enhanced rail freight’s green credentials. Improvements to the capability of the rail network and the acquisition of new rolling stock have allowed freight operators to run more efficient, longer and heavier trains.

However, a pathway to a further step change, in some cases even to zero carbon freight movements, is available through further electrification of the rail network. Electrification is an established technology that has been successfully in use on the railway for many decades. In comparison, there is no known technical solution developed that would enable HGVs to radically decarbonise. A long-term strategy of further electrification of the rail network would enable the future procurement of electric locomotives by freight operators. Currently, there are key gaps in the electrified freight network:

  • Felixstowe Port to the West Coast Main Line, via Ipswich and Peterborough
  • The branch line to London Gateway Port
  • The Transpennine route via Huddersfield
  • Southampton Port to the West Coast Main Line and the diversionary route

An electrification strategy would also support the decarbonisation and reduction of localised pollution from the rail passenger services on that route, as well as for rail freight services. The UK lags behind many other European countries in terms of the percentage of their rail network that is electrified, with only 33 per cent being electrified in 20151, the seventh lowest of countries with rail networks, whilst seven countries have over 70 per cent of their networks electrified.

A new report published by the Railway Industry Association shows how future electrification schemes can be delivered at 33-50 per cent lower cost than recent projects2. This is very interesting, as it will support the business schemes for future rail electrification schemes.

There is also a need for government support in the shorter term. Benefits such as reduced carbon, freeing up congested roads, and safety benefits (it is estimated that the use of rail instead of road to move freight prevents 600 casualties on the roads each year) are recognised through the Mode Shift Revenue Support (MSRS) scheme run through the Department for Transport. However, as a result of distractions by government in dealing with Brexit and the lack of departmental budgets post April 2020, there is no new scheme in place after March 2020. So just at a time when we are told that carbon saving is of the highest priority, there is a risk that some freight currently moved by rail could return to the roads, undoing all the progress that the MSRS scheme has underpinned to date.

Due to the success of the railways over the last two decades, and near doubling of passenger and freight volumes, the rail network is reaching near capacity in some areas. Infrastructure schemes to remove bottlenecks at junctions etc. are vital to increase capacity but can be very expensive and take a long time to implement. We need to think more carefully about how capacity is used on the railway, particularly off-peak, as well as digital signalling and running longer trains rather than running more and more trains, ensuring we are optimising value. A high priority for the new arms-length body in charge of the rail system, (likely to be set up post the Williams Review) will be to put in place the capability to model economic, congestion and carbon benefits to support the right choices. In this context, there seems to be a strong case to re-evaluate the value of carbon in transport modeling, given how critical carbon reduction is to the future of our planet.

Of course, we are realistic in understanding that rail cannot replace all road movements and instead there should be a focus on optimising the modes of rail and road, but with a clear focus on maximising the environmental, safety and congestion benefits that rail can offer.


Lindsay Durham is Head of Rail Strategy at Freightliner, G&W UK/Europe Region companies. Freightliner, a subsidiary of Genesee & Wyoming Inc. (G&W), is a leading provider of intermodal and bulk freight haulage, with depots and terminals spread nationwide. Operating services across the entire UK rail network, Freightliner moves over 770,000 maritime containers per year, providing a complete logistics package and ensuring satisfaction from port through to end delivery.