Rail Environment Policy Statement (REPS) – On track for a Cleaner, Greener Railway


The UK Government published its Environmental Benefits of Rail Freight in June 2021 setting the scene for Great British Railways (GBR) with its statutory duty to 'promote rail freight'. The intention is to set a clear direction for the rail industry on environmental sustainability to be incorporated into a 30 year plan for the railway.

The Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, published on 20th May 2021 called for a 30 year strategy to provide clear, long term plans for transforming the railways, incorporating a comprehensive environmental plan, to be published in 2022 to establish rail as the backbone of a cleaner future transport system.

At the moment, therefore, we only have the policy, with the plan to follow in 2022. However, setting the 'direction of travel' is important. The policy is for the whole railway including freight.

The main priorities listed are:
Remove all diesel only trains from the network by 2040.
Commitment to a sustainable, deliverable (but not quantified) programme of electrification that delivers a higher performing net zero railway.
Air quality targets: set for public access areas by 2022 and met by the industry in 2030, and net zero greenhouse gases from trains by 2050.
Air quality improvement plans for all stations identified as having poor air quality (not as yet quantified).
Zero waste to landfill by 2025, increasingly challenging recycling targets to be set across all parts of the railway.
Targets to be set for renewable energy generation and use at stations.

It is a worry that these initial headline policy priorities omit to mention the term 'freight' and indeed 'modal share'. Achieving modal transfer from road to rail, passengers and freight, is far more beneficial to achievement of overall transport net zero objectives. We need a total transport policy of which achieving these objectives for rail is a subset of the overall initiative. This is particularly important for rail freight. In terms of emissions, a freight train hauled by a two stroke diesel locomotive is far better than a convoy of road vehicles but it is not net zero. A freight train hauled by an electric locomotive is net zero (if the source of power generation is net zero). Carrying no freight at all on a diesel railway, quickly achieves the narrow objective of net zero, but does not contribute to an overall transport objective. This is not the answer, rail freight must increase its market share.

Electrification will take time, particularly if there are no targets, nor the establishment of a rolling programme of electrification deploying competent teams, learning with experience.

The policy recognised, rather early on, possibly too early on for comfort, that decarbonising rail freight is a 'challenge'. The word 'challenge' is always a worry, when used in government speak, usually inferring that nothing much will happen. The policy does, to its credit, say up front that short 'infill' electrification schemes could quickly deliver benefits enabling rail freight operators to (immediately?) switch to electric traction. The policy quotes key ports and terminals. Additionally, and importantly, a national freight coordination scheme will be set up with, in due course, with a freight growth target.

We therefore need a policy that encourages modal shift to rail, followed by a rolling programme of investment in electrification to achieve net zero for the rail freight operation.

The government followed this by issuing its Net Zero Strategy for the UK on 20th October. This focuses on unlocking investment in clean and green industries. It is not specifically rail related.

What needs to happen to encourage the transfer of freight onto railways?


First and foremost, the economics of freight on rail must reflect not just what is termed as a 'level playing field' but the value to the environment of a modal shift to rail. Pricing must reflect this and be stable so that hauliers can plan with confidence to invest in using freight facilities. The recent sudden electricity price rise, up to a 100% increase, has forced Freightliner to move from electric to diesel haulage as they have to be competitive to survive. Coinciding with COP26, this is not good.

Rail Freight Group
The rail freight industry has its own advocacy group - the Rail Freight Group (RFG). Trade groups, including RFG, promote the interests of their member organisations, not necessarily the customers. In this case however, the interests of the freight rail customer and RFG are aligned which means that Railfuture can support and work with RFG on campaigning for capacity upgrades for the railway including electrification.

Open access has been an outstanding success for rail freight. The rail freight operators have risen to the challenge, investing in equipment and flexibility of working.

The Williams-Shapps plan maintains a fully open access railway with no state subsidised operator, as on many other railways in continental Europe. The key is the need for the rail freight industry to be able to plan long term using stable, realistic access charges which reflect the value to the country of using rail. Rail freight can no longer be treated as some form of marginal activity where the passenger operators grudgingly accept freight on the network with what is called 'Schedule 8 compensation' if freight trains get off schedule and delay passenger trains. In fact in dire economic times Schedule 8 can be an important source of income to passenger operators! Schedule 8 has to go under GBR.

Capacity for freight


Rail freight has increasingly become a long distance operation, a far cry from local trips from pits to power stations. This applies to intermodal freight and also to bulk freight such as aggregates from the Peak District to just about everywhere on the rail network. It is essential therefore that the network has the latent capacity to allow new freight flows to be introduced. A major, but often overlooked, benefit of HS2 is to unleash capacity for more intermodal and bulk freight trains on the West Coast Main Line from Wembley to Crewe, the UK’s most important freight corridor. This is good, but not enough in itself, to facilitate a major shift to rail operation as there are other areas where capacity needs to be provided and safeguarded for rail freight, both on the rail network and at terminals.


Electric freight train on the Woodhead route across the Pennines. Britain had a cross Pennine electric freight railway which was closed down in 1981. Ironically the main traffic latterly was coal from Yorkshire pits to Fiddlers Ferry Power station to produce electricity, some of which was used to power the coal trains. Photo from Facebook.
Electric freight train on the Woodhead route across the Pennines. Britain had a cross Pennine electric freight railway which was closed down in 1981. Ironically the main traffic latterly was coal from Yorkshire pits to Fiddlers Ferry Power station to produce electricity, some of which was used to power the coal trains. Photo from Facebook.
It is East to West links where we need upgraded rail capacity for freight, West to East across the Pennines (Liverpool Port to Yorkshire) and also from Felixstowe to the West Coast Main line by eliminating the bottleneck around Ely and Soham. The same applies to the South to North Spine, a concept floated by government and abandoned by government almost in the same breath. The Oxford to Bletchley, Bedford and Cambridge reopening was originally envisaged by The Right Honourable Chris Grayling MP, Secretary of State for Transport, as a DMU only local railway without provision for diverted passenger trains nor freight and certainly not electrified. It is difficult to understand why such a strategic asset could be viewed so narrowly. His interest at the time was the project delivery model, which to be fair is working well.
The other area, not all within the gift of GBR, is the need for capacity at freight terminals, including rail access to terminals and ports such as to Trafford Park through the notorious Castlefield Corridor and to the port of Felixstowe.

The ports of Southampton, Felixstowe and Liverpool, alongside the new London Gateway near Tilbury, have invested heavily in rail transfer facilities and are likely to continue to do so to accommodate growth, and also to affect modal shift to rail as a way of facilitating this. Rail must not miss out on growth from smaller East Coast ports such as Blyth, and ports on Tyneside and Teeside for example.

Bulk Freight


Bulk rail freight has also seen a revival with demand for commodities such as aggregates and cement products, increasing with growth in the economy and demand for housing and for major construction projects such as HS2. The sources of these products are predictable, such as quarries around Buxton, but the destinations vary with demand, although heavily concentrated on the South East. The only current rail freight access from Buxton to the Midlands and the South East is via the already oversubscribed Hope Valley line or northwards via the Manchester suburbs! Road vehicles have the joy of travelling directly through the Peak Park. Capacity is the constraint on rail freight growth and the industry must plan for it. Particularly at known pinch points, identified in Network Rail’s Route Utilisation strategies published as long ago as 2009. A new aggregate service is soon to start running between Lanark and London, the length of the West Coast Main Line.

Distribution


Tesco Express intermodal freight from Daventry uses electric traction to Scotland. Photo by Direct Rail Services
Tesco Express intermodal freight from Daventry uses electric traction to Scotland. Photo by Direct Rail Services
The prospects for intermodal freight from ports and domestic bulk construction freight are good where capacity can be provided. The biggest market, largely untapped however, is distribution where rail freight needs to enter the supply chain. Major retail suppliers, such as Tesco and the Co-op are acknowledging the increasing importance of resilience in the supply chain by investment in rail for the trunk haul, such as from major warehouses in the Daventry area to Scotland.

This type of operation can, with investment, become mainstream using conventional intermodal technology. Our railways are well aligned for this development as many bulk flows are from and to the warehousing and distribution complexes in the Daventry area to the north and to Scotland and hopefully, Wales.

We need to ensure that main line capacity, particularly north of Crewe after HS2 is available for these developments.

International freight


Map of rail route from Murcia to Barking. Image by maritimasureste.com
Map of rail route from Murcia to Barking. Image by maritimasureste.com
The Channel Tunnel financing plan was based on the provision of 35 train paths per day between France and London, travelling onwards mainly to the West Midlands, the North West and Scotland at that time. This is yet to be realised owing to a range of factors particularly in the areas of cost and reliability, including frequent strikes on French Railways. The two main identified markets were white goods such as fridges and cookers, from Italy to the UK, and fresh produce from Southern Spain for supermarkets.

White goods can tolerate unreliability to some extent but competitive cost is key, fresh produce cannot. At the time of Channel Tunnel planning the equivalent of 24 trains a day were identified as coming into the UK and Ireland by truck and ferries, and rail can potentially take a full day less than a truck driving from, say, Valencia to London, potentially a dream ticket.

Murcia and Valencia refrigerated train pictured on HS1 to Barking. Photo by Railfreight.com
Murcia and Valencia refrigerated train pictured on HS1 to Barking. Photo by Railfreight.com
The advent of open access for freight in the EU (the famous Council Directive 91/440/EEC), potentially makes the difference in terms of crew efficiency and avoiding frequent strikes, some prolonged. The recent introduction of a fast freight train from Murcia and Valencia in Southern Spain to Barking on HS1, with no booked stops in France, is a game changer, as was the earlier Transfesa Ford component train, the longest non-stop train in Europe, from Valencia Ford plant to Dagenham. Tesco with their experience of UK rail freight operation is a major customer of this refrigerated container train, and the resilience of supply of fresh products to Tesco has brought major benefits to Tesco during the recent shortage of truck drivers. 23 more trains to go!

2018 Map of the Silk Road railway routes from China to continental Europe and hopefully through the Channel Tunnel and HS1 to Barking. Image by CSCS (China)
2018 Map of the Silk Road railway routes from China to continental Europe and hopefully through the Channel Tunnel and HS1 to Barking. Image by CSCS (China)
Another big structural change under way affecting rail freight in mainland Europe is also modal share shift, this time from container ship all the way from China, with intermodal freight trains operating along what is called the “New Silk Road” along the ancient Silk Road trading alignment. 12,400 trains ran in 2020 mainly to Germany or out via the Baltic Sea via Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic Sea enclave. A few made it to London as pictured. The New Silk Road has benefitted enormously from Covid. The point here is that rail is increasingly being seen as competitive on speed (two week transit from China), reliability and price (more expensive than a container ship but cheaper than air on this route).

New potential applications to fast 'passenger rated' traffic


The UK passenger train operators have not developed the market for what used to be called parcels traffic, which was big business prior to privatisation of British Rail. The franchise system has not encouraged this, preferring to cram as many passengers into train space as possible.

The fastest freight train in Britain. 100mph  Royal Mail freight at Royal Mail’s depot at Willesden. Photo by Royal Mail.
The fastest freight train in Britain. 100mph Royal Mail freight at Royal Mail’s depot at Willesden. Photo by Royal Mail.
However carriage of mail by rail has continued in what is now a very slick all electric service based on the Royal Mail hub at Willesden at the south end of the West Coast Main line, using dedicated mail electric multiple units operating nightly at 100mph to mail hubs in Warrington, Newcastle and Glasgow.

There is potential application to other parcel operators such as DPD, UPS and FedEx for domestic flows although connections to airports, particularly Heathrow, are essential for international traffic.

Orion parcels train being demonstrated at Euston station. Photo by Orion
Orion parcels train being demonstrated at Euston station. Photo by Orion
New operators such as Orion High Speed logistics are setting up to address the large but untapped market for high speed parcel traffic. They need encouragement, given high set up costs, and GBR must facilitate such developments, not wait for a knock on the door. Orion are planning to use surplus 100mph electric multiple units fitted out to carry high value consignments, similar to the Royal Mail operation, but in this case operating from passenger stations as well as dedicated freight facilities such as DIRFT at Daventry.

Electrification


Electrification warning sign
At one level, dirty old diesels can do the job in affecting modal shift if track and terminal capacity is provided together with competitive access charges. This is not so easy with routes across the Pennines, where capacity is already fully taken up. Electrification for freight is needed if the rail freight operation is to become net zero. We need a strategy of modal shift to get more freight on rail, together with a longer term strategy of electrifying the network to further enhance the efficiency of the operation and achieve stated net zero targets.

Freight operators will invest in leasing diesel locomotives but additional incentives are required to make investment in electric locomotives more attractive. Last mile dual mode capability is essential for efficient operation as all freight has to originate and terminate in terminals or ports, most of which are not electrified. More infill electrification is also required, based on the needs of the freight operators to tip the operational efficiency balance more in favour of electric operation and facilitate better use of existing electrified routes. We need electric freight operation with its high payload and performance potential on routes to the Midlands and the North and Scotland from Southampton, and cross country from Felixstowe as well as a replacement electrified link across the Pennines.

The future


The creation of GBR, the need for a resilient supply chain for freight addressing congestion issues and the urgent need to address climate change represent a major opportunity to create a freight system based on a rail backbone in Britain with international connections. We must not miss this, probably once in a generation, opportunity. It will not happen naturally unless we equip our railways with the capacity required based on a sustainable high capacity electrified network, designed to serve existing markets by modal shift to rail, and with innovation expand into new markets domestically and internationally.

Let’s go for it.