Shining the spotlight on rail freight

In the first of a series of articles on rail freight, Lydia Cullimore, Director at Burges Salmon, looks at how the sector can achieve its full potential.

A spotlight is increasingly being shone on rail freight in the UK and for good reason. The reduction in carbon emissions that results from increased modal shift to rail freight is compelling. The current rail reform agenda presents an opportunity to evolve existing industry structures and incentives to better meet the needs of the sector.

We will be releasing a series of articles exploring the legal issues arising in various scenarios including:

  • building and managing a freight facility;
  • using rail freight to take construction materials to a development site;
  • decarbonising rail freight operations; and
  • managing health and safety risks.

We will also be producing updates on the impact of rail, access and planning reform on the rail freight sector as developments arise.

If you would like to receive these updates, please do sign up to our mailing list here.


What are the benefits of rail freight?

Rail freight seized the opportunity of capacity on the network during the pandemic to show what it can do, providing reliable and timely delivery of essential goods and medical supplies in a period where keeping food on supermarket shelves and supplies in hospitals was more important than ever.

Beyond the pandemic, eyes have turned to the significant economic and environmental benefits of rail freight. A single freight train can remove up to 129 heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) from the roads, and reduce carbon emissions by 76% compared to the equivalent road journey. [1] These statistics make rail freight an attractive solution to companies and their customers looking to reduce their carbon footprint and offer significant driver efficiencies.

These benefits have been widely recognised with the Department for Transport’s decarbonisation plan reinforcing that rail freight is a key enabler of the decarbonisation of the logistics sector.[2]


Plans for rail freight growth

In the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail, a White Paper published in May 2021, the government committed to setting a target for rail freight growth. The Great British Railways Transition Team held a call for evidence in 2022[3] to develop its understanding of how much of the current and future market demand for freight could be met by rail.

Various options for a rail freight growth target are being considered and an announcement is expected later this year. Industry stakeholders are calling for a target to treble rail freight by 2050, which they say would deliver over £5bn in economic benefits annually.[4]

Whilst an ambitious rail freight target is important to drive behaviours, effective policies and plans that underpin that target will need to be developed and implemented to ensure that growth is delivered in practice. Key areas include:

  • Existing network- Plans to enhance existing network capacity, improve network performance and electrify key freight routes are essential so that rail freight can grow and unlock its potential. Network Rail’s Strategic Business Plan for England and Wales in Control Period 7[5] recognises the benefits of rail freight and includes plans to tackle performance challenges on key freight corridors, improve timetables to allow for more freight capacity and invest in structures to enable longer and heavier freight services.
  • Access reform– The Great British Railways Transition Team is developing recommendations for changes to the regulatory framework that governs access to the network. It will be important to ensure that any reform appropriately balances competing demands for use of the network for passenger services and freight.
  • New rail infrastructure – Any schemes for new rail infrastructure should consider rail freight and business plans should take into account the economic and societal benefits of any modal shift.
  • Planning reform – Planning policies should support the needs of the freight and logistics sector. The Department for Transport and Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities launched a consultation in July 2023[6] seeking views on how the planning system can better support supply chains and the decarbonisation of freight.

Achieving the sector’s full potential

Whilst faced with exciting opportunities for growth, there is much that the sector can do to achieve its full potential.

To be a competitive alternative to road haulage requires the sector to look at how it can harness new technology to operate more efficiently, capitalise on the existing environmental benefits of rail freight and further decarbonise operations, and ensure that rail freight is a safe and reliable method of transporting goods.

Burges Salmon’s Rail Group

Our nationally acclaimed specialist Rail Group advises clients in the rail freight sector on a broad range of matters.

We work collaboratively with our clients to successfully deliver strategic projects including the construction of new railway infrastructure, the introduction of innovative technology to increase operational efficiency, the private financing of rail infrastructure enhancements and the modification of rolling stock to include battery technology.

We also have extensive experience of advising clients in the rail sector on a broad range of regulatory issues including compliance with rail regulation on access issues, competition law, environmental regulation and health and safety.

If you would like to discuss how we can support you, please do get in touch.

Sign up to our rail freight mailing list to receive our latest updates.

By Lydia Cullimore
Burges Salmon

+44 (0) 117 939 2239


[1]Rail Partners – Freight Expectations – How rail freight can support Britains economy and environment.pdf; p.9, p.10
[2]Decarbonising Transport – A Better, Greener Britain (; p.138
[3]Rail freight growth target | Great British Railways Transition Team (
[4]Rail freight has potential to boost UK economy by £5.2bn annually by 2050, says Rail Partners
[5]England and Wales CP7 Strategic Business Plan (
[6]Freight and logistics and the planning system: call for evidence – GOV.UK (