The Transport Decarbonisation Plan (the Plan) and Rail Environment Policy Statement were published on 14 July 2021 setting out ambitious plans for a cleaner, greener transport network. The headlines for rail include:

  • a net zero rail network by 2050; and
  • all diesel-only trains (passenger and freight) being removed from the network by 2040.
The Plan recognises the important role that rail freight has to play in reducing carbon emissions, echoing the sentiments expressed in the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail published on 30 May 2021 (the White Paper).

Rail freight enables the efficient movement of goods from ports, quarries and distribution centres, helping reduce the need for HGVs on roads. The Plan highlights that on average rail freight trains emit around a quarter of the CO2 equivalent emissions of HGVs per tonne mile travelled. Given these green credentials, the Government is keen to continue to encourage modal-shift to rail freight and intends to set a specific growth target for the sector.

What does freight need to meet demand and exploit new opportunities?

The Plan acknowledges that extra capacity needs to be built on the rail network to meet growing freight demand. Investment in improving the capacity and capability of the network for rail freight will focus on improved connections to key ports and strategic rail interchanges. The Government invested over £235 million in the Strategic Freight Network between 2014-2019 to improve freight capacity and capability, and further funding is being made available through the Rail Network Enhancements Pipeline.

The pandemic has shown the potential for rail freight to utilise capacity on the network released by the reduction in passenger services. Major rail infrastructure projects such as HS2 should lead to more capacity being available on the classic network in the future.

The White Paper sets out plans for the existing track access arrangements to be reformed. A new rules based access system will be established, with appeals being made to ORR where fair access to the network has been prevented. Legislative proposals for the new regime are expected in 2022 and will be critical to ensuring that freight operators have the necessary assurance that they will be able to secure the relevant access rights to justify investment in new commercial opportunities.

What are the plans for the decarbonisation of rail freight?

  • Electrification of the network – In order to meet the Government’s plans to create a net zero rail network by 2050, an ambitious programme of electrification is required to enable electric rail freight to run on more routes. The Plan confirms that more electrification schemes will be announced shortly guided by Network Rail’s Traction Decarbonisation Network Strategy. Short “infill” electrification projects are being considered (particularly on routes connected to key ports and terminals) as those schemes may quickly enable rail freight operators to switch to using electric rolling stock.
  • Removal of diesel rolling stock - The Plan sets out the Government’s aim to remove all diesel-only trains from the network by 2040. The replacement of diesel rolling stock with electric traction will have a significant impact given that around 90 per cent of in-use freight rolling stock is currently diesel-only according to the Plan.
  • Decarbonisation of rail freight terminals and depots - The Government will also work with the rail freight industry and GBR to encourage the decarbonisation of operations within rail freight terminals and depots.
What’s next?

The Plan and the White Paper recognise the importance of rail freight in meeting net zero targets as we recover from the pandemic and there are exciting opportunities ahead for the freight market.

The detail on how this potential will be unlocked now needs to follow. Announcements regarding electrification are expected soon and we should have greater clarity on the timetable for implementing the reforms set out in the White Paper by the end of the year. The Rail Environment Plan and legislative proposals for track access reform are expected to follow in 2022. In the meantime, the Government continues to work on its Future of Freight programme.