Getting the high-speed freight debate back on track

Senior reporter

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.