1. Economics
September 16, 2016updated 28 Jul 2021 1:36pm

We need to talk about freight: why it's time to get HGVs off the roads

By Philippa Edmunds

During peak hours, freight related vehicles account for a third of the traffic in London. And yet, government figures show that, nationally, almost 30 per cent of lorries are driving around completely empty.

Freight does not have a vote, and is not seen as sexy. Consequently, in the past, it was often overlooked by politicians and officials alike.

But growing awareness of urban road congestion, the dangers of cycling and wide-spread air quality violations have all been instrumental in highlighting the need for city authorities to plan sustainable and workable freight strategies.

The air we breathe

Two issues have fuelled the debate about air quality. Firstly,  there were the revelations about Volkswagen, and potentially other manufacturers, avoiding EU air quality emissions standards by fitting “defeat devices”.

Secondly, the environmental law group ClientEarth successfully challenged the government on the inadequacy of its air quality strategy. Its challenge was based on the EU air quality directive over illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a harmful gas emitted mainly by diesel vehicles.

Because the subsequent government strategy did not envisage compliance until 2025, ClientEarth has brought a fresh legal challenge. The hearing it’s been granted in October will be an early indicator of the line the Government intends to take towards EU legislation as a whole.

For these reasons existing freight industry practices, such as using large HGVs for urban deliveries, are now being questioned. Such practices suit the operators – but they impose heavy safety, health and economic costs on society as a whole. Department for Transport statistics show that, nationally, HGVs are six times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal crashes on urban roads. In London, the statistics are even worse: HGVs are 10 times more likely to be involved in a fatal collision than cars, even though they only account for 3.6 per cent of road miles driven.

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Hub and spoke

Countries like Germany and the Netherlands have stronger municipal governments with more resources to devote to strategic freight planning than in the UK. Consequently, they’ve developed intermodal consolidation centres which allow road and rail to play to their strengths. Under this set-up, rail freight can offer a low-pollution congestion-busting safer long-haul alternative to HGVs; at these terminals, goods can be transferred to electric vehicles and even electric logistics bikes for the final mile.  

We could implement these practices here – as long as local authorities safeguard key sites with good rail and road connections on the edge of conurbations, and enshrine them in their strategic policies so that planning permission can be obtained.

Using a similar out of town model, the Daventry rail freight interchange already removes 23m HGV road miles a year, most of them from the trunk road network. In the UK, rail freight already carries over a third of this long distance consumer (container) traffic from the key container ports.

Rail is also the option preferred by shippers, because it reduces port congestion. Freight customers are largely agnostic about what freight modes are used as long as they get their products to market on time.

On rails

Another complementary option is using passenger rail terminuses, which are closed between 1-5am each night, to bring trainloads of freight deliveries, into the heart of cities. Two successful rail freight trials into Euston, for TNT and Sainsburys, showed the merits of using freight trains, each of which can remove around 70 HGVs from city roads, with low emissions vehicles performing the final delivery.

Rail produces 90 per cent less PM10 particulates and up to 15 times less nitrogen dioxide emissions than HGVs for the equivalent journey. (Electric HGVs are not currently an option, as the weight of the battery would use up the  weight restriction alone.)

Currently, there is suppressed demand for consumer rail freight services because of constraints on the rail network. So rail upgrades remain high priorities, if we are to usher in more sustainable  and safer freight transport. Wider devolution and city mayors should result in more powers for cities such as Manchester and Birmingham to decide their own priorities and regulations, just like London has.

Technology has an important role to play in increasing efficiency, adapting to e-commerce and managing low emissions zones. London showed the way to the world with its introduction of congestion charging in 2003 – but now this system needs to be refined to incentive vehicles to use quieter times outside the rush hours.

No longer can authorities claim that their Freight Quality Partnerships, which improves road signage to ports and logistics centres, are sufficient: every year, 40,000 people die prematurely in the UK from diesel fumes. We need bold political direction, which balance the needs of business and the public to deliver sustainable integrated freight distribution.  

Philippa Edmunds is freight-on-rail manager at the Campaign for Better Transport.

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