Freight expectations

Few people would argue with the claim that the increasing amount of freight on UK motorways is a frustrating nuisance. Take a trip down any of our major arteries and it’s rarely long before the sight of articulated lorries laboriously overtaking each other triggers a concertina of red lights and a near suicidal dash for the outside lane. Add the high environmental cost of road freight to this heady cocktail of danger and irritation, and it’s clear that using the roads to fulfil our commodity requirements simply isn’t sustainable.

According to rail track operator Network Rail, the only thing that will save our motorways and main roads from gridlock is a massive increase in the amount of freight being transported on the railways. A draft report issued yesterday by the company predicts a 30 per cent growth in demand for rail freight over the next 10 years. This will equate, it claims, to an additional 120 trains per day by 2015.

This increase isn’t a new trend. Indeed, in their ongoing efforts to convince consumers of their environmental credibility the major supermarkets are all in the process of making the switch back to rail freight. Of course, many would argue that they would reduce their environmental impact far more dramatically if they stopped wasting jet fuel on importing asparagus from Peru, but you get the picture.

Network Rail’s draft strategy – a final report is due out next spring – outlines a series of options for increasing capacity to accommodate all of this extra freight. These range from tinkering about with timetables, to introducing mile long trains, widening tunnels and building new lines. And while it seems that the railway offers the only sensible short term solution – the canals (originally designed for just this) are now the domain of pleasure cruisers, and autonomous road trains that cruise along the inside lane are many years off – the challenges are immense.

Indeed, taken in parallel with the technical challenges the rail industry faces in improving passenger transport, many might doubt the industry’s ability to ever address all of the problems.

Interestingly though, the solution to the great freight debate might ultimately lie beyond the transport industry. One of the biggest causes for the predicted increase in freight is our growing appetite for imported coal, and the only thing that’s likely to put us off our fossil fuel is an abundant source of home-grown energy, be it nuclear, alternative, or a combination of the two.

Jon Excell

Features Editor

The Engineer Magazine