Why is HS2 important to UK freight transport infrastructure?

rail transport for container freightAs legislation reaches the final hurdles for the new rail line HS2 to be approved we look more closely at the supposed benefits.

The Bill reached the Report stage in the House of Lords on Tuesday, January 24, with a number of concerns being raised about the effect on local roads and communities during its construction, among them the potential for increased road traffic because of the need to transport waste material away from the sites.

This raises the question of what might be the actual benefits for freight transport of the new line.

The economic arguments or the benefits for businesses in the West, and eventually East Midlands in being better connected to the South have been well rehearsed during the interminable consultation process.

Once the legislation is passed there will still be a long way to go, with phase 1 (Birmingham, West Midlands) expected to be completed in around 2026 and phase 2 (extension to Manchester and Leeds) expected to open in 2032-33.

The new high speed line may eventually reduce passenger journey times somewhat and increase the passenger transport capacity. The Department for Transport has argued that once complete there will be almost 15,000 seats an hour on trains between London and the cities of Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds – treble the current capacity.

However, crucially in our view, not much has been said about the importance of additional freight transport on the line. Arguably this is more important to the UK economy especially if we are to increase productivity and output.

Environmental and capacity benefits of UK freight transport

Moving goods and materials by road is less efficient and more costly than by rail.

UK roads are near capacity and choked with HGVs at some times of the day, particularly during peak commuting times. It only takes a couple of accidents or breakdowns for a region’s main road arteries to be brought to a slow crawl or even to a standstill.  This adds to the costs for businesses relying on deliveries within specified times, with knock-on effects if it delays orders to their customers.

Shifting container transportation to the rail network would allow far more goods to be efficiently shifted over long distances than can be managed by road, with the added benefits of a cleaner environment by reducing fuel emissions from lorries.

However, there are concerns about whether the plans for the new HS2 rail lines have additional freight capacity built into the equation.

Last November, Chris MacRae, the Freight Transport Association’s Head of Rail Policy, said: “There is no mechanism in place to guarantee additional capacity released by HS2 is available for freight.”

He argued that adding additional passenger services could be counter-productive and squeeze the capacity for freight transport on the lines. The FTA argues that freight will only benefit from rail capacity released by HS2 if the Government ensures it doesn’t have to compete with passenger operators through the existing train path bidding process.

UK Businesses will need every bit of help they can get if they are to compete effectively in a post-Brexit and increasingly protectionist global market and this should include a more efficient, more cost effective and faster freight transport system.

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