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Getting the high-speed freight debate back on track

The debate over high-speed rail rumbles on with much of the noise but perhaps not enough of the velocity of the trains that provoke such heated arguments.

As we approach the environmental consultation for HS2, which could see changes to the design of the project, some of those worried about the impact the scheme could have on the countryside are focusing more on persuading government to change the route rather than opposing high-speed rail outright.

Action group Conserve the Chilterns and Countryside, for example, want the trains to start at Heathrow and pass through a tunnel under the Chilterns, rather than cutting through the hills directly from London.

But there are still some relatively high profile figures including MP Cheryl Gillan and actor Geoffrey Palmer arguing that Britain doesn’t need high-speed rail and that we could simply upgrade existing lines instead. (Gillan has previously said she was in favour of high-speed rail in a different location but this week called for the government to invest in the current network instead).

It has to be said it’s impressive how quickly those with homes in the Chilterns can become experts on Britain’s railways, helpfully bringing to light numerous scraps of evidence that have informed their carefully made decisions.

Proponents of high-speed rail in search of counter arguments (or those just looking to hear all the facts before making their minds up) may wish to look again, therefore, at the case for using HS2 to increase Britain’s rail freight capacity.

According to consultancy WSP group, moving freight to a freed-up West Coast Main Line (WCML) could take 500,000 lorry journeys off the motorways a year. This, they say, could lead to savings of over 3m tonnes of CO2 emissions and environmental benefits worth £1.3bn over 60 years.

Rail freight is on the rise as major companies such as Tesco and Sainsburys choose to use trains rather than lorries to transport goods long distances in order to cut costs and reduce their carbon emissions. The total amount of freight moved by train in 2011-2012 grew by 10 per cent compared to the previous year, the highest level since before the recession. And rail freight is predicted to have doubled by 2030.

But the case for freight hasn’t exactly been at the forefront of the HS2 debate, which instead has focused on increased passenger capacity and carbon savings by encouraging fewer people to drive or fly. Prof Roger Kemp, professional fellow of Lancaster University and the Royal Academy of Engineering, said his submission to the government’s high-speed rail consultation largely discounted freight for two reasons.

‘Firstly the government plan talked about releasing slots on the conventional line for additional passenger trains,’ he told The Engineer. ‘If you run 12 trains an hour to Milton Keynes, there is unlikely to be much space left for freight.’

‘Secondly the traffic relief on the WCML will initially be on the Euston – Rugby section. It is difficult to see how much freight traffic would use this part of the route, without a lot of additional infrastructure.

‘Traffic flows like supermarket deliveries into London from warehouses in Milton Keynes have to use lorries for the last few miles – would companies really want to put stuff onto trains for 40 miles and then open a new distribution depot in the high-cost London area to tranship onto lorries for the last five?’

However, WSP’s head of rail planning, Ian Brooker, believes these are misconceptions and has produced the research on the potential contribution of rail freight in order to address them.

He pointed to a report from Network Rail last year that suggests four to five trains could run each hour in both directions between Rugby and Wembley while accommodating increased passenger capacity, compared to just three an hour theoretically available today.

There is also the importance of the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal (DIRFT), which is becoming a major distribution centre for supermarkets. It lies close to Rugby on the WCML so extra capacity freed up by HS2 could make a real difference to its operations, said Brooker.

He added: ‘While the main market for rail will be supplier to depot and depot to depot, it is interesting to note that a supermarket company recently (a few weeks ago) trialled a train from DIRFT to Euston Station, with final delivery by road to their stores.’

Perhaps surprisingly, his comments on rail freight echo a report produced in September last year by a number of groups including the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE). It found that HS2’s carbon benefits would increase by over 50 per cent if freed up space on the rest of the network was allocated to long-distance freight services.

If organisations such as the CPRE (not a group you’d normally expect to be trumpeting such a major countryside-disrupting development as HS2) are extolling the freight potential of high-speed rail, perhaps the debate is moving further along than it first appears.

We shouldn’t think that Britain’s railways will return to a pre-war golden era of freight transport with a depot in every town: not only do we not have the infrastructure but carbon savings are much less for short journeys.

But perhaps it’s worth giving goods transportation a greater role in the discussion than it has previously been allowed, whether the debate is on if we should build HS2, where and how to build it, and what we should with the space capacity once it’s finished.

Readers' comments (10)

  • Freight transport should be moved onto rail wherever it makes sense. And if it can fit with HS2 passenger traffic, it ought to be factored in to HS2 planning.

    But the carbon savings being claimed for HS2 as a result of passengers switching from aviation are illusory. If HS2 is built and it does divert domestic air passengers away from flying, those airport slots freed up will be allocated to longer distance flights. After all, we are often told by people who know these things that airport congestion is hurting Britain's global competiveness, and we have to be able to fly more businessmen to China...

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  • The option of using shorter, faster trains able to operate at passenger train speeds therefore able to run within fast moving streams of passenger traffic would seem one way forward. Shorter trains would also appeal to more of the freight market than large slow trains that consume too many train paths.Many potential users are deterred from using rail because it appears to be focused on large block trains only. A spread of products and services would do a lot to draw more traffic onto rail. It does suggest that rail needs to radically rethink its product and service offer and move from a one size fits all template.

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  • These new arguments simply highlight how poorly thought out the HS2 idea was in the first place. Surely, the need for the project should have been established in the first place and all the arguments made at that stage. Instead we first have a business case built largely on the value of the time saved. Then, when this was shown to be false, the capacity argument was dreamed up. Now that argument has lost momentum we try find another one - freight. If this doesn't illustrate that HS2 is a solution searching desperately for a problem to solve then I don't know what does. Spend money on rail infrastructure by all means but let's have something that benefits a greater proportion of the ordinary population - local rail networks for example, so more people can go to work or go shopping by train. What we don't need is a national vanity project like HS2.

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  • We see many articles on running cars a few metres apart on motorways. If we could upgrade the railways to run trains in a similar way we could have a huge capacity, especially if we upgraded the points etc. to accomodate the higher speeds.
    passenger trains could run more frequently, saving waiting time, so the increased speed of HS2 would be unnecessary and there would be plenty of space for freight.
    The money would be far better spent, we ccould also then sell the technology of the second railway revolution

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  • Really just need roll on roll off trains similar to the channel tunnel, so the whole lorry can drive on the train and drive off at the other end to complete it's journey. This would be simpler and more flexible than loading and unloading containers which requires depots, infrastructure etc.

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  • Y is not a network for freight and reduction in passenger trains on the WCML and ECML sections does NOT create high speed freight opportunity. The slow crossing of London and from Southampton and poor lines from other ports does not provide solution.
    A different network is required of almost 1500Km and more is required to transform English rail freight. The price would be over £150B. Y network was poor plan and still is.

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  • Is there evidence that a high-speed freight network is a)necessary and b) worth the money?

  • While the current ludicrous level of effective subsidy on road freight is maintained, any discussion on rail freight is utterly pointless.

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  • Am I missing something? Road subsidy? With fuel at record prices in large part to the duty levels, plus road fund licences, operators licences etc.

    As for rail taking passengers from airports - wake up! Have you seen the comparative fare rates? Do you really think spending all that money on HS2 is going to cause a huge dop in fares?

    As to freight, the report conveniently forgets that by removing the mythical 500,000 lorry journeys doesn't mean a lorry won't deliver the cargo to the railhead and then recollect at the arrival point, handling charges and delays at both ends for intermodal traffic, damages due to constant restowage etc. If traffic warrants its own rail terminals it already gets it. If it's truly intermodal, i.e. FCL traffic then there is limited scope for rail but it ain't going to pay for HS2 you'll have to bleed the passengers for that one, road haulage is still too competitive. The thought of high speed freight trains thundering along will terrify a lot of people, paticularly when the first disaster occurs.

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  • Lets deal with some of these comments:

    Robert: Very little of the benefit of HS2 comes from passengers shifting from air, so you are correct!

    Rob Hill: The point is that HS2 has a positive business case, even taking into account the most conservative of assumptions. If we all think hard and work together we can increase those benefits.

    John: Railway lines are being upgraded to run trains closer together. But its not enough to do away with the need for HS2.

    Jonathan Jennings: Sadly the UK tunnels and bridges are far too small for rolling motorway. In any case, very few rolling motorway schemes in Europe cover their costs.

    chriseagelen: We are not talking about high speed freight. The opportunity is to create capacity for normal rail freight because volumes are growing so quickly.

    HD: Again, we are not talking about high speed freight! Also the article carefully said that HS2 would remove 500,000 lorry trips per annum FROM MOTORWAYS. Local delivery by road will still be required. 5 miles instead of 250?

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  • Interesting comments on rail freight, particularly on the benefits of the Tesco facility at Daventry

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