Even a diesel-hauled freight train will only emit a quarter of the carbon that 60 HGVs (assessed by Rail Freight Group as the typical equivalent) would produce. The amount of freight moved is closely linked to the economy, so the government's 'growth' target of increasing rail freight by 75% by 2050 (roughly equal to the average annual economic growth rate) is actually a zero-modal-share-growth target as well as the minimum cost option with no policy initiatives to drive achieving it.

The total of carbon emissions to 2050 is vitally important. A solution that saves 1 tonne per year now is worth as much as a 'perfect' solution that saves 3 tonnes from 2041. Rail freight is a proven, scalable solution that can literally deliver now.

The most cost-effective way to achieve net zero carbon from transport is to set a target of at least doubling rail freight in the next 20 years, achieving real modal shift from road to rail. This will also reduce road accidents and maintenance costs, improve air quality and avoid the need for new roads. Car drivers will welcome the reduced congestion.

To achieve this target the economics of rail and road freight must reflect a 'level playing field' by ensuring that each mode carries the social and environmental externality costs associated with it, such as carbon, hospitalisation of road casualties and particulate air pollution. The balance has shifted towards road with first the freezing and then the reduction in the fuel duty rate, and the increase in the electricity price. As fuel duty receipts fall with the introduction of electric vehicles and the amount of freight carried by foreign vehicles increases, some form of road pricing will be needed. The rail freight operators are ready to invest if they can be certain of stable costs, fair competition and rail network capacity.

In any change of the rail industry structure the needs of freight customers and operators must be prioritised, recognising that freight moves within national and global supply chains.

The most intense freight and logistics activities are associated with ports, distribution centres and quarries, so it is on these flows that growth can be achieved quickly. On some of these flows, where rail would be the cheapest option, road is used because rail network capacity is insufficient. Gauge clearance is also needed on some routes. Limited, targeted investment will be needed to resolve these rail network constraints, for example at Ely on the route between Felixstowe and the Midlands. In the short term until extra capacity is provided, priority should be given to freight over passenger rail traffic at such pinch points.

Rail freight services are more energy-intensive than passenger services so a rolling programme of electrification should first focus on the 800 miles, identified by the Confederation of Integrated Logistics and Transport, which are required to enable 95% of freight trains to be electrically hauled. This should start with short infills, linking existing electrified lines, on the most heavily used freight routes. This would also increase capacity by allowing freight services to operate at average speeds closer to passenger services.

The town planning process should be changed so that new industrial and warehousing developments are located where rail access can be provided, and existing barriers to the development of new rail freight interchanges are removed.

The Modal Shift Revenue Support grant has a high administrative overhead which could be reduced by changing the grant to paying a proportion of track access charges. A revival of Freight Facilities grants as an 'innovation' fund could be used for loading pads or batching plants at sidings, enabling new flows to be created.

There is a major opportunity to address the barriers to entry for a more committed move into the largest road based freight market: distribution. It needs leadership, some investment and assistance for major distribution operators to adjust their network, particularly at start up, for an integrated trunk rail and local electric road vehicle distribution system that would reduce city centre congestion.

Press release: Rail freight growth plans “nothing to celebrate”

Railfuture Rail Freight Strategy 2024