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A green recovery for UK logistics

The UK stands at the cusp of an environmental transformation, with the need to decarbonise all facets of the economy an urgent priority for government and business alike, according to Mags Simpson, Head of Policy Engagement at Logistics UK.

“As the nation rebuilds from the COVID-19 lockdowns and focus is placed on long-term economic recovery, green policies must be at the heart of this restart,” she said, arguing that rail, as a lower polluting form of freight transport and one that has a clear path to decarbonisation, has a role to play (with the support of government) in leading the environmental charge for logistics.   


In July 2021, the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) published its report, Rail Freight: Building a stronger, greener future for Britain, setting out a clear and bold vision on the policies that government should adopt if it wants to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, while supporting the ‘levelling up’ agenda as well as reducing congestion in towns and cities. As well as focussing on the means to decarbonise rail – electrification and, to a lesser extent, use of hydrogen and battery trains – Simpson argues that it also necessary to focus on policies –primarily incentivising and creating the right environment for modal shift. 


RDG’s report maintains that to maximise the benefits offered by using rail, both the government and railways should incentivise businesses to switch their goods from road to rail. To make this possible, Simpson argues, rail freight transport must be fit for purpose: this means user charges must be fair, affordable, and provide operators with long-term certainty; railways must be well-connected with hubs and terminals in the right places to support supply chain needs; and there must be adequate capacity to meet demand for services.

“Without government action to make these changes – measures Logistics UK has been campaigning for over many years – the UK risks falling back into a road-based recovery, when modal shift is vital to support the nation’s Net Zero ambitions,” Mags Simpson said. 


Creating the right environment for rail growth also supports the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda – its plan to improve livelihoods and opportunities in all parts of the UK – with 90% of the benefits brought by rail freight supporting communities outside of London and the South East. And with a single rail freight path generating up to £1.5 million each year of economic value, space made for more freight trains on the existing network will deliver immediate economic benefits with little investment required, as outlined by RDG in its report. 


In its white paper, Great British Railways: Williams-Shapps plan for rail, the government made clear its commitment to grow rail freight and overcome common grievances such as a lack of capacity for freight on the network, predominately through the creation of a national freight coordination team as part of a new public body, the Great British Railways (GBR). The team has been assigned to “help embed freight firmly into strategic decision making”, with changes expected to ensure freight operators have “fair access to the network.” This is a promising development for rail freight, although it remains to be seen how GBR, and the national freight coordination team, will work in practice.  


Technology holds the key to enabling freight trains to run more efficiently; it is vital that Britain’s railways maximise the opportunities these advanced technologies afford. There are many exciting developments happening in this space, for example, the University of Hull developed NR+ recently, the UK's first digital rail infrastructure platform for optimised freight planning. The platform enables Network Rail, rail operating companies or current and potential rail users to understand and analyse routing options on the complex UK rail network quickly and accurately. This can lead to major efficiency gains, not only in the resource time used to find the best routes, but also in faster decision making that provides an advantage in the highly competitive freight transportation market.  

“As outlined by RDG, freight customers are looking increasingly towards rail freight as a sustainable solution within their supply chains, but there must be capacity on the rail network to accommodate this demand and, given the low margins of businesses operating in the logistics sector, it must compete price wise with other modes,” Mags Simpson concluded. “While the tangible decarbonisation of the railways, through electrification, alternative traction power, and use of renewable energy, is vital, without the necessary supporting framework in place, freight customers will not make the transition to rail in the numbers required to help reach net zero.”  


Published On: 26/08/2021 16:00:43


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