Comment

Don’t waste opportunity to increase construction’s use of rail freight

Given the need to reduce HGVs on the roads and pressure to reduce emissions, there is an immediate opportunity to step up construction’s use of rail freight, says Tarmac’s Chris Swan.

It’s time to pay attention to smart logistics. Flagship projects like Heathrow’s expansion and HS2 are demonstrating the need for early planning and innovative models like regional hubs that can deliver significant cost and productivity benefits. However, our challenge is to make this best practice standard across the construction industry, not only on the major projects grabbing headlines.

This needs to begin with policymaking that supports sustainable and efficient infrastructure delivery.  It was pleasing to see the National Infrastructure Commission’s recently released Better Delivery study recognise rail freight’s “inherent energy efficiency” and “low carbon intensity”.

Despite this, it’s the NIC’s proposed ban on new diesel HGVs by 2040 that has dominated discussion.  While we should always look to cut carbon wherever possible, encouraging continued modal shift must be the industry’s goal.  

We’ve already made significant strides in the last five years. The number of trains has risen from by more than 23% as benefits including congestion reduction and air quality improvement become more widely recognised.

While the 2040 HGV target has been simultaneously criticised as not ambitious enough and not achievable, there is an immediate opportunity to step up construction’s use of rail freight. This is particularly important in the context of another significant deadline – the government’s target to halve the construction sector’s carbon output by 2025.  

Using current analysis, transporting materials by rail produces around 70% less carbon dioxide per tonne compared with the equivalent road journey. While HGVs will likely always play a role in going the last mile to deliver materials from freight hubs to sites, over longer distances, a tonne of materials can travel significantly further on a gallon of fuel by rail compared to the same journey by road.  

More and more projects are taking advantage of these benefits, with record volumes of aggregates, cement and other construction materials moved by rail freight last year and further growth of over 3% annually predicted. However, achieving this will require more capacity to be built into the network, improved access to new terminals and certainty from policymakers.

The NIC’s interim freight report explicitly referenced the need to protect key mineral product facilities such as rail connected terminals, depots and wharves close to urban centres where materials are used from inappropriate adjacent development. Competing land use pressures are putting these critical strategic sites at risk.  In particular, encroaching residential development can lead to retrospective operating constraints due to noise and traffic when these sites need to be active 24/7. 

National policy intended to safeguard these sites is being sorely tested by the political pressures of the housing crisis. It’s encouraging that Better Delivery calls for new planning guidance to support intelligent development control in the context of freight. This must be developed with urgency and – crucially – with sufficient representation from our sector.

By working closely with policymakers, we can continue to drive modal shift towards a more efficient and sustainable construction industry. Let’s not waste the opportunity. 

Chris Swan is head of rail at Tarmac, one of the UK’s largest private users of rail freight.