What role will rail play in a decarbonised logistics future?

Reducing carbon emissions is becoming a more significant part of every logistics business worldwide as customers and executives demand more sustainable solutions to maintain or improve their ethical approach to business and boost their green credentials in the eyes of the end consumer.

Using rail to move freight is a more environmentally friendly way for goods to travel. It produces less GHG emissions and avoids a significant proportion of the air quality impacts from moving goods into highly populated urban centres. Changes to the operational profile of rail freight in recent years make the shift from road to rail a simpler proposition. A single freight train can remove up to 76 HGVs from our roads, resulting in 1.6 billion fewer HGV kilometres each year.

Previously, logistics companies would need to fill at least half a train, if not an entire train, to move products from A to B, which was a real barrier to entry. Now, the process has become much more flexible, resulting in rail becoming an integral part of the multimodal logistics solution. For example, logistics companies can now take up a single carriage or even book separate slots within a single carriage, depending on their needs and requirements at the time. It means you no longer get penalised if your volume decreases for a time, and you can book additional slots when your volume increases.

Accessing urban centres

Increasingly, innovative freight trains can travel directly into urban centres, and using existing stations as a decentralised distribution centre means you can use a smaller, more efficient mode of transport such as a van rather than an HGV, for the last-mile distribution. If this last-mile vehicle also runs on low-emissions alternative fuels or an electric vehicle, then CO2 emissions across the end-to-end multimodal journey can be significantly reduced.

While private firms can’t invest in the rail network’s infrastructure, it is possible to invest in the rolling stock, which creates a beneficial alternative to road transport. While still at the innovation stage, the growth potential is significant, not least because of the complications caused by the low emission / clean air zones (LEZs / CAZs) and ultra-low emission zones (ULEZ) that are being rolled out in urban centres and districts around the country.

One of the biggest challenges for operators with such clean air and low emissions approaches is the lack of uniformity in how these zones are set up and applied. For example, to comply with ULEZ in London (now proposed to extend out to the M25), all petrol cars and vans must be Euro 4, and diesel cars and vans must be Euro 6 to comply. Euro 6 emissions must contain no sulphur at all.

A further issue is when these zones are active, which can vary across the country. As an HGV moves from one city to the next, maintaining full compliance cannot be accessible due to such variability. Standardisation set out by the central Government is imperative to allow full compliance and remove unnecessary cost burdens from localised fines. In addition, since these zones are typically in cities, using rail to get goods into these centres and bypassing clean air and emission zone stipulations is a sensible solution.

The benefits of rail freight

The other benefit of rail is the speed at which trains can travel compared to the road network. Most trains can travel up to 125mph in the UK, with freight trains surpassing the maximum speed limit for cars and speed limits on the wider UK strategic road network (SRN). There are also obvious benefits from the lack of traffic delays and scheduling outside of peak passenger times to optimise delivery windows.

From an emissions perspective, diverting freight from road to rail can reduce CO2 emissions by up to 76%, with the potential to be higher if the remaining parts of the rail network in the UK were electrified.

It is estimated that only 800 miles (CILT & Midlands Connect, March 2024) of track in the UK requires electrification. This would allow fully electric freight trains to be deployed, removing the need for current diesel-electric engines and reducing emissions even further. As such, focused investment could significantly boost tangible progress in diverting freight from road to rail in the UK.

Finally, this approach to modal shift could be further enhanced from the more expansive logistics space by utilising what we know worked well and applying these lessons to rail freight development and investment. A key benefit would be sharing knowledge and logistics best practices, helping the rail industry understand the needs and requirements logistics companies have now and into a decarbonised future.

The potential of rail as part of a multimodal, global forwarding model cannot be underestimated, particularly the contribution it could make to achieving greener operations across the logistics space.


By Dr Nicholas Head, XPO’s Head of Sustainability – UK and Ireland, XPO Logistics