Could this be the last chance for rail freight in the UK? Liza Helps investigates.
That’s not to say they will be building new railway lines. More important than that; they are proposing a network of intermodal terminals so freight can access the rail network fast and efficiently, removing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of freight from the roads, reducing congestion, reducing carbon emissions and at very little cost to the taxpayer.
It is all very well to free up capacity of the railway lines as indeed the Department of Transport is keen to do having committed some £200m for the development of Network Rail’s Strategic Freight Network – it is laudable but not providing the necessary access to the network is ludicrous. Rail Freight Group chairman Tony Berkeley says: “There is a need for new interchanges, particularly in the South East. These are of national importance, since, without them, the government policy of encouraging freight on rail will be constrained.”
That could be a slight understatement as rail freight volumes are expected to double overall in twenty years. Some traffic, such as containers and other intermodal units, is expected to treble by 2030. However this does not take account of the potential extra demand as fuel costs continue to rise.
The biggest stumbling block seems to be the planning system. Although there is support for freight on rail from the government through the planning reform this has not been translated down to a local level.
Robin Woodbridge of ProLogis points out that this is not levelled just at SRFIs but all warehouse development particularly in the crowded South East. “This is largely due to the sheer scale of the developments.”
ProLogis’ 156-acre scheme at Howbury, which will total 2.1 million sq ft, only secured planning consent at appeal on Christmas Eve 2007, when the Secretary of State approved planning inspector Andrew Phillipson’s recommendation that the project fitted the “very special circumstances” criteria to enable green belt protection to be overruled.
Michael Hughes of HelioSlough says: “The private sector is ready and willing to invest but it needs planning permission.”
HelioSlough is awaiting an appeal decision scheduled for October on its scheme at Radlett in Hertfordshire. The scheme proposes a £300m rail freight interchange on the former Radlett Aerodrome at Park Street near St Albans. It would incorporate five large distribution/warehouse buildings totalling some 3.5 million sq ft, parking for up to 1,665 cars and more than 600 lorries as well as associated rail infrastructure.
The rights and wrongs of siting a rail freight interchange in that area are subject of deep debate. It is clear that these developers are expending a lot of time, money and effort on bringing these developments forward at their own risk. Woodbridge says: “In a country with such a severe restraint on land supply plus a very complex planning system, it takes very substantial investment on our part to get a project of this nature to the point where it can be properly considered by government.”
Chris Selway of Atisreal warns: “This is possibly the last chance for rail freight. If the likes of ProLogis, HelioSlough and Gazeley do not get their proposals through it would be a great shame. They need every assistance. If enthusiasm and preparedness are not encouraged, it will evaporate. There are easier things to do – much easier to do the easy things and road serve, doing it by rail takes a lot more time and effort.”
The UK Commission for Integrated Transport noted that unless there is the ability to use freight more evenly across the whole of the UK as part of the Rail Freight Strategy, then as congestion worsens and trade with the European market increases, there is a risk that the UK economy will become more polarised in the South East.
Rail freight villages strategically located as part of an integrated transport solution, with road, sea and air will enable other parts of the UK such as Scotland, the North West and the North East to benefit from an efficient supply chain connected to both national and international markets.
It has been suggested that the logistics industry vocalises its support for not just freight on rail but also the development of rail interchanges. A public campaign extolling the use of freight on rail, showing how rail freight is part of the total supply chain would go a long way to mitigate many of the myths that surround it, for example that only bulky goods go by rail.
Tesco has garnered huge eco points with its rail freight campaign and other retailers and logistics companies should do the same. It is surprising how many goods travel at least in part by rail freight, from bottled water to Californian wine.
It would be naïve to think that rail freight could ever replace wheeled transport says Hughes, but even getting ten per cent of heavy goods vehicles off the road would make life on this congested island much more bearable.