A welcome document

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The Strategic Rail Authority’s (SRA) recently launched a new policy document – Strategic Rail Freight Interchanges (SRFIs) – to establish a clear framework for promoting and facilitating the delivery of SRFIs (large freight villages) in the context of the Government’s wider economic and environmental objectives. The document clarifies the Government’s position on rail freight, especially the need for SRFIs.

Indeed, the document’s first page points out that the success and growth of rail freight can only be sustained if there are enough SRFIs to achieve modal shift. The document also attempts to address developers’ scepticism about the Government’s commitment towards the building of SRFIs and restore their shattered confidence in the planning process. This follows the debacle concerning Argent’s failure to gain planning permission for the London International Freight Exchange (LIFE) proposal. The recent failure of ABP’s Dibden Bay planning application may have further dented developer confidence.

The SRA’s document aims to educate, inform and provide guidance for local authorities and planners on the role and importance of SRFIs to the national interest. Hopefully, this persuades local authorities not to take a purely parochial view regarding freight village developments, but to consider the wider benefits in the interest of Britain plc.

As such, the initial industry response to the policy document has been to welcome it as a step in the right direction, and that it is appreciative of the difficulties and issues surrounding the freight interchange developments. But there is a feeling that the document is somewhat belated – if such a document had been available a year or so earlier would the outcome on the LIFE decision been any different?

The document highlights the fact that the Government has been supporting modal transfer to rail since 1974, via grant aid and other measures. Add to that the fact the Channel Tunnel has been operating for over a decade and a national network of strategic freight villages was to form an integral part of Britain’s rail’s revival and pan-European capability. What do we get? First, the national network of freight villages has yet to be completed. Second, those in the pipeline are continually confronted with planning difficulties. Third, there have only been marginal improvements in rail’s freight market share. Fourth, why has it taken the SRA so long to issue such a document?

The SRA recognises that without private sector investment the national network of SRFIs will never be completed. If the private sector is not convinced about the Government’s commitment to deliver on modal transfer and the need for freight villages then the SRA’s freight strategy will fail. At stake for Britain’s logistics industry is the loss of an estimated £2Bn of potential private sector investment earmarked for future freight village developments.

The SRA document specifically addresses the criteria for SRFIs claiming they require between 100 and 1,000 acres of land, located near cities, key road networks and labour force – near to Britain’s major conurbations such as London, Birmingham and Manchester. Additionally, the development land has to be flat and a site configuration which permits full length 775m freight trains to be handled.

Sounds simple enough, but the realities are different. In practice very few sites meet these stringent criteria. In all probabilities such sites will probably impinge upon the Green Belt, resulting in time-consuming and costly planning application delays. This appears to be the nub of the problem. While official bodies tend to be at one in desiring the private sector to invest in building freight villages there is a perception of backtracking when a planning application is confronted with Green Belt issues. Most of the forthcoming planning applications for SRFIs will impinge on the Green Belt – by the nature of their size, geographical position in relation to conurbations and major road network. Also there will only be a handful of such sites. Should these sites be granted exceptional circumstances status for SRFI development and where the national interest takes precedence over the narrower local interest? It would be interesting to know and compare the experiences of how our European counterparts deal with the same issues.

The development of SRFIs is key to widening the coverage of Britain’s rail network and rendering a more attractive option to logistics companies. If that is to be achieved, the role, power and staffing of the SRAmust be strengthened, similar to the Highways Agency, whereby there is regional location enabling the body to have first hand knowledge, and input, on local issues. That may be another step the industry would welcome. n

Frank Worsford works in the transport studies group at the University of Westminster.

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