Caroline Pidgeon: Why more use of rail freight would be a win-win for London

Caroline Pidgeon: Why more use of rail freight would be a win-win for London

Londoners, admittedly, don’t spend their days marvelling at the successes of rail freight transportation. But I’m sure they admire the majestic Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, opened in 2011, or perhaps the Shard which from 2013 changed London’s skyline forever, or indeed the opening of the east-west Elizabeth line last May, dramatically cutting journey times across the city.

What do these triumphs have in common? The answer is rail freight. As well as serving daily commuters and people looking for weekend getaways, London’s rail network has an important role supporting the construction of such major infrastructure projects, carrying waste from urban areas for conversion into renewable energy and moving containerised consumer products through London and across Britain.

Looking forward, freight will continue to provide the backbone of the supply chain for big schemes in the capital. The construction of the Thames Tideway Tunnel, the 25 kilometre long “super sewer” which will radically update the capital’s wastewater handling, is being aided by rail freight (and indeed river freight, which is busy delivering tunnel sections and taking away spoil).

But even this game-changer for Thames water quality will be outshone by the efforts to go into constructing High Speed 2 which, if delivered in full, will in turn transform the whole network by providing much needed extra capacity and decreasing journey times between London and other key cities across the country. As well as delivering the giant tunnel boring machines to their destinations, freight rail has already removed spoilage from the site of the (now delayed) HS2 station at Euston and will continue to do so at Old Oak Common. 

More widely, rail freight plays an important role in the transportation of waste away from London. Six days a week, household rubbish from 1.6 million residents of west London boroughs Brent, Ealing, Harrow, Hillingdon, Hounslow and Richmond is transported by rail to a facility outside Bristol, where it is processed into energy.

This energy recovery process generates 34 megawatts of power into the national electricity grid – enough to power 50,000 homes. Further to this, GB Railfreight and Biffa opened a new rail facility last year in Barking on derelict land which will be able to transport 250,000 tonnes of waste every year. The east London site will reduce the carbon footprint of waste management in the city and make more efficient use of materials that would previously have gone to landfill. 

Why else does all this matter for Londoners? Because using rail instead of roads improves air quality and reduces road congestion, particularly in urban areas. The trade body Rail Partners estimates that rail freight removes 1000 HGV movements per day from London’s roads.

Transport for London’s freight action plan aims to cut the number of lorries and vans entering central London in the morning peak by 10 per cent by 2026. Rail freight, along with other green logistics solutions, is key to making this happen. Driving modal shift towards low-carbon freight will help to make London’s streets safer, greener and more pleasant for all who use them. 

Having a freight action plan for London is important, but to really cement rail freight’s position within reliable and green supply chains across the country we need the government to set an ambitious rail freight target. New analysis calls for it to treble by 2050, delivering £5.2 billion in economic benefits every year and taking 20 million HGV journeys off the roads.

That isn’t to say progress is not already taking place. Freight operating companies have already invested £3 billion to improve the productivity, reliability and safety of their services. DB Cargo opened their new £7 million facility in Cricklewood in 2020 and it is now supporting some of the country’s biggest infrastructure projects, including HS2 and the ongoing regeneration of Brent Cross.

But with a long-term, ambitious target, freight’s impressive track record of delivering for London and the country and be extended further, in the process – most importantly for Londoners – delivering the clean air and healthy streets we all desire. More rail freight really is a win-win for London.

Caroline Pidgeon is a Liberal Democrat London Assembly Member, deputy chair of the Assembly’s transport committee and a former mayoral candidate  Follow Caroline on Twitter. Photograph from TfL action plan.

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