Achieving 20% of freight by rail by 2030

Decarbonising transport must be a primary objective to reach Scotland’s climate target goals and rail freight has a big role to play. To reach the climate target goals, the focus needs to be on modal shift from road freight, so it’s useful to understand where this achievement will come from by looking at how road freight currently breaks down.

Scottish Transport Statistics 2021 tell us:

  • 3m tonnes of freight were lifted in 2020. 44% (41m tonnes) travelled less than 100km (62 miles), of which 17% (15.9m tonnes) of that freight travelled fewer than 25km.
  • Of a total 11.6 billion tkm of Scottish road freight, 65% (7.5b tkm) was entirely domestic and 35% (4.1b tkm) was cross border.
  • Cross border road freight entering Scotland totalled 15.6m tonnes, of which 70% (10.9m tonnes) originated from the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside and North West of the UK. 12m tonnes left Scotland destined broadly for the same regions in similar proportions.
  • In 2020/2021, 3.8m tonnes of freight was lifted by rail in Scotland, just 4% of the total by road.

In this context, tonnes lifted are a more useful measure than tkm as it can provide a clue as to the number of actual freight vehicle road journeys this equates to. Assuming every vehicle was loaded to its maximum weight, that’s about 6m individual truck journeys. Clearly, it is far more than this as freight includes lighter weight commodities, small consignment loads and and awkward cargos where weight isn’t the limiting factor for road transport.

But while statistics are a useful measure, to achieve modal shift goals we must stop just talking about it and willing it to happen, but get on with trying to make it happen. It doesn’t take a statistician to realise there’s plenty of traffic to go at if an attractive rail offer can be made.

The reality is that, unlike a very large proportion of the transport journeys made by people, almost no freight, whether by road, rail or maritime, is discretionary. It is a derived demand of another requirement, typically to either make things or to get them to places where they will be sold, or reprocessed for another purpose. And there are thousands of individual companies involved in these supply chains each seeking to optimise their businesses and succeed in a competitive marketplace.  Therefore, to achieve modal shift and climate change goals, we need to recognise that rail freight customers are commercial customers; pulling on emotive heart strings is unlikely to be sufficient. Rail freight has to offer a solution that is compatible with modern-day logistics networks and is as competitive, or even better than road in terms of cost, performance, reliability, predictability, and resilience. And that comes down to:

  • Raising awareness of rail freight within the freight and logistics sector, where it operates, what services are running, what opportunities are available.
  • Ensuring the facilities are in place to that allow efficient rail freight services to operate. Besides network capacity and capability, this means having efficiently configured terminal capacity where freight can transfer between modes and value-adding services can be offered to enable the rail offer to be integrated into the supply chain.
  • Developing improved ways for smaller customers to buy rail freight solutions as easily as they can road or maritime solutions.
  • Understanding the overall freight market to appreciate what is addressable for rail and where there are optimal opportunities for rail freight to be successful.

Cross border rail freight is well established.  It has the distance and volume to enable efficient rail freight services to thrive. Rail freight to and from Scotland benefits from competition between operators, which drives service improvements and encourages them to find and develop new partnerships with major logistics operators and shippers.  We are seeing innovation in the use of low carbon fuels where lines are yet to be electrified and, in Scotland, a clear routemap to further electrified routes.

Scotland’s Railways for the next control period has a new growth target of 8.7%. This period will take us to 2029. Growth can be expected on cross border traffic as operators are investing in assets, services, terminal capacity, marketing and sales effort and commercial relationships to capture road freight. Before too long, companies will find it increasingly difficult and expensive to undertake long distance freight journeys as efficiently as today when zero emission HGV’s with different duty-cycle characteristics are the only trucks available to buy. As the transport statistics tell us, this could amount to a tidal wave of new demand ramping up in the next 15 years that the rail network and wider industry can prepare for now. Where this freight gets onto and off the rail network will need national-level strategic thinking as infrastructure takes many years to plan and deliver, making recent planning decisions against new terminal capacity a particular setback to accommodating this potential future demand.

But Scotland’s transport statistics tell us something else. There is a huge domestic road freight market that is almost untouched by rail freight.  Over 50m tonnes of freight is lifted in Scotland and travels more than 100km, within Scotland.  The challenge to achieving 20% of freight by rail would appear to be understanding what this freight is, and developing rail freight solutions that meet its requirements in a commercially viable way. It is clear, fast, frequent, shared user shuttle type services to Aberdeen and Inverness, and beyond, or reaching across the central belt, must have a role. Services that can maximise asset use for operators and provide attractive options for customers, but these must be developed.

The public sector cannot deliver rail freight services, but it may have other enabling roles. It is a huge procurer of goods and is, indirectly through its suppliers, a freight customer. The public sector could, if it wished, develop its procurement and reporting policies to influence its suppliers to look more favourably at rail or zero carbon freight transport in their supply chains, favouring suppliers who use rail freight somewhere in their supply routes. The public sector could also develop its data and understanding of freight movements as it does with passenger movements when planning passenger services. Freight operating companies, quite understandably, will deploy their resources and assets where they find best return on a UK-wide basis. Investing time and money in lower volume, highly fragmented markets that are challenging to sell into is expensive. As modal shift to rail brings about mostly social and environmental benefits, there is an argument that public investment in better understanding the overall freight market such that new services along key corridors, especially domestically, can be more easily packaged and presented to freight operating companies to develop into commercial propositions, is a sensible investment.  And a very modestly priced one when compared to developing and delivering infrastructure.

20% rail freight market share, however it’s measured, is an ambitious target and will require thinking differently, perhaps taking a few risks, and being prepared to accept a bit of failure in the process. But there has never been a better opportunity to achieve it as companies today are responding to climate change and actively looking at all opportunities to decarbonise their businesses and supply chains.

By Martin Bignell, Scottish and Northern Representative, RFG.