Afreight of change

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Development of the Strategic Rail Freight Interchange at Radlett has got government approval, but opponents of the scheme have not given up. Daniel Heineman investigates. 

There is general consensus that the more freight that can be moved onto rail the better, however moving freight onto rail is not always straightforward, with a number of barriers blocking the development of rail freight infrastructure across the UK.

Rail freight is a key component of the UK supply chain and has a number of advantages compared to road haulage. Rail transport has great potential for growth that will help ease congestion and pollution due to rail’s greater efficiency than road. Congestion on British roads currently costs business £17 billion per annum – as congestion increases, rail’s competitive advantage will increase. With the increased drive by the retail sector to decrease their environmental footprint, rail could hold the answer as a typical freight train can remove 50 lorries from British roads. Rail currently accounts for less than 1 per cent of the total UK CO2 emissions compared to 21 per cent from road users.

However moving freight off the roads and onto trains is becoming increasingly difficult, and the problems with rail freight development in the UK are perfectly exemplified by the struggles between developers Helioslough and local authorities in Hertfordshire. In July 2014 communities and local government secretary Eric Pickles gave his final approval for planning permission for Helioslough to build on the former Radlett airfield after the local council refused. Helioslough plan to build the £400 million Strategic Rail Freight Interchange (SRFI), which will act as the South East’s main freight distribution point.

The plans to build the interchange have been met with stiff opposition from both local residents and local authorities, who have been battling the project for seven years. The project is now in limbo with the county council, who own the proposed site, yet to make a decision over whether or not to sell the site to Helioslough.

The decision to grant planning permission has been welcomed by industry organisations including the Freight Transport Association and the Rail Freight Group. The terminal is seen by the industry as a significant boost for freight transport in the region as the site is expected to serve much of the South East of the UK.

The site will be made up of 3 million square foot of rail-connected warehouses and associated infrastructure. The site will serve London and the South East, and the site lies on the Midland main line adjacent to the M25, close to the M1 and M10 interchanges.

Once fully operational the interchange is expected to employ nearly 3,400 people with 12 trains a day predicted to use the facility generating 3,200 HGV movements a day. In addition to this there would be 7,000 light vehicle movements daily, the facility would operate 24 hours a day.

The two major sticking points for local residents and the council are the use of greenbelt land and the impact that the terminal will have on congestion in the area. Many local community groups have been angered by the government decision to allow Helioslough to build on greenbelt inside the M25.

Parish and district councilor Chris Brazier has said the “development of this site would have a massive detrimental effect on local residents, not to mention the environmental devastation on one of the few remaining green areas to the South of the [St Albans] City.”

Pickles has clearly decided that the benefits of such a development outweigh the concerns of the council and local residents. The council will be in line for a sizeable sum of money should they decide to sell the land to Helioslough for development.

Additionally, the freight terminal will provide a significant boost to the local economy, with over 50 per cent of potential employees expected to live within 30 minutes of the site. Finally the terminal could play an important role in the development of intermodal services in the UK.

The RFG executive director, Maggie Simpson has described the importance of the interchange saying: “In general terms, strategic rail freight interchanges such as Park Street are critical to enabling the retail sector to make more use of rail. By co-locating the warehousing next to rail links, the costs are reduced such that rail can compete with road haulage.”

The county council still appear to be looking for alternatives and remain unwilling to sell the site to Helioslough.

Derrick Ashley, Cabinet Member for resources, has said: “The county council remains of the view… that factors weighing in favour of the development do not outweigh the harm it will cause. “Given that planning consent has now been granted, the council will have to take a view on the disposal of its own land and in doing so… any alternative uses available and how we fulfill our financial responsibility as owners of public assets.”

The case in Hertfordshire displays the nationwide problems that accompany the development of rail freight. It is clear that whatever the outcome one party will certainly be unhappy. Balancing the concerns of local residents and the need for improved rail freight infrastructure is extremely difficult.

It is undeniable that the creation of the SFRI will generate a great deal of business and income for the region; however this needs to be weighed against the wishes of the local residents and local authorities.

One thing can be said for certain is that there is still a long way to go before we see rail freight moving in and out of the SFRI with the council digging its heels in.



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