Are we on the right track?
There is now a major debate on whether the Airport Commission got it right in its decision on where to build the next runway in the southeast but, whilst the political debate rages, it is critical we don’t lose sight of the huge investment which is also needed across the UK’s infrastructure, specifically rail and ports.
Most of the UK’s railway infrastructure dates back to the Victorian era and, whilst a staggering £38bn is expected to be invested in the network up until 2019, fundamental questions are being asked as to whether this investment will be effective in delivering the much needed improvements.
The Government is focused on two key areas: upgrading the rail infrastructure and improving the efficiency of the network. In her recent address to the Rail Engineers Forum at the Institute of Civil Engineers, Rail Minister Claire Perry made much of the apparent opportunities that may (or may not) exist across the network outside of the peak passenger periods. She considers that much of the network is underutilized and opportunities may exist to exploit this under-capacity for the movement of freight.
Certainly a key target should be to minimise road freight via HGV, which is a significant contributor to congestion, air pollution and climate change. Increasing rail’s share of freight should form part of this solution, and indeed it does – recent statistics show a doubling of this use to 11%, with forecast freight growth set to exceed passenger growth over the next five years. However, new technologies are emerging in road transportation. For example, autonomous road vehicles are now about to be trialed across the UK, the platooning of lorries is being developed around the world and there is now increasing take up of electric and hybrid vehicles. If innovation in electrified road transportation continues at its current pace, this will challenge rail’s green credentials in the longer-term.
Energy, as with many other sectors of the economy, will play a central theme in how the rail industry adapts. Whilst the electrification of the network plays a crucial role, many consider it will not be cost effective everywhere and a blended solution, including the use of battery powered trains, will be needed.
So what else needs to be considered within the wider infrastructure debate, if you are to increase efficiency and the freight/ passenger mix? Looking to reduce the distances for overland transportation may be part of the solution. Liverpool 2, Peel Port’s new deep-water container port begins operation later in 2015 and will likely provide some critical traction to the development of the Government’s much hailed “Northern Power House”. The port is geographically located in the centre of the UK, with 50% of the UK’s population living closer to Liverpool than the ports in the southeast. Using this port (and others like it) efficiently, and in an integrated manner with other transportation modes will therefore be a significant step to reducing the volume of road and rail freight across the UK.
Getting the mix right as to where freight starts its journey in the UK needs to be at the heart of the debate, as in any journey, if you don’t know where you are starting from, what possible hope do you have of getting to your destination!