Thursday, July 23, 2020

As Doubts Persist Over the Value of HS2 More Money Arrives for Rail Freight Upgrade

Much Promised but More to Deliver
Shipping News Feature

UK – In 2018 the Rail Freight Group (RFG) issued two position papers on the Transpennine Route, one outlining the commercial drivers for enhancing the corridor for freight, the other listing the advantages of the 'Diggle' route via Stalybridge and Huddersfield. Following the government's announcement that improved freight capacity and electrification are to be developed as part of the upgrade, the organisation has expressed its satisfaction.

Although much detail has still to be revealed the RFG has welcomed the announcement that a further £589 million has been committed to the project and an Integrated Rail Plan which will consider how freight capacity can be provided as part of the core scheme.

However, with the plan not due till December, the RFG is urging Government to ensure that freight enhancements to deliver capacity and gauge clearance are accelerated to ensure they can be delivered as part of the already committed scheme. Most of these enhancements have already been studied and scoped in concept.

Ports and businesses across the North of England have been working with RFG to make the case for improved rail freight links on the Transpennine routes. All agree that new rail freight services will support post-Covid recovery, and help develop new trade routes post Brexit, delivering economic growth in the region. Maggie Simpson RFG Director-General said:

"Businesses across the North are biting at the bit to integrate rail into their distribution networks. Today’s announcement is a welcome step forward, but Government must keep the pressure on and move from development to confirmed delivery as soon as possible."

Once again environmental arguments figure high on the agenda with proponents arguing that by removing hundreds of HGV movements from the road network, rail freight will also help deliver the green recovery, reducing carbon and air quality emissions. Mike Hogg, RFG Northern Representative, said:

"We are pleased to see Government has listened to businesses who have clearly set out their aspirations to use more rail freight as part of their distribution networks. This project is vital in ensuring that those companies can deliver for the economy of the North, whilst also decarbonising their transport links."

Earlier this week former head of the RFG, Lord Tony Berkeley proposed his own package of improvements for a rail upgrade plan for the South West. In company with Chartered Quantity Surveyor, Michael Byng (with whom the ex RFG Chair wrote a critical report on the cost of HS2), in response to the government’s funding made available to the Northern region.

Berkeley, a resident of the South West, suggests redoubling Exeter-Salisbury and reopening Exeter-Okehampton-Plymouth to negate the periodic flooding of the existing route amongst a comprehensive package of measures designed to and improve access to jobs and help the move towards more zero carbon transport. Basically the discussion paper suggests making small scheme, cost effective adjustments, which can be more easily managed than a single, grand project.

The report puts the cost of these mini projects in total at under £1.2 billion, just 1% of the equivalent cost of HS2 with Byng saying the schemes are ready for delivery and that they would provide many much-needed work opportunities in the South West, plus immediate help to local SMEs in the design and construction sectors whilst creating a pool of skills to support future long-term development in the region. Berkeley concluded:

”Government’s commitment to rebalancing the economy from the South East to the Midlands and North, most recently by the reported creation of a Northern Transport Acceleration Council with £6 billion funding, must also be applied to the South West, where a contribution of less than 1% of the cost of HS2 would bring massive benefits to this region which sometimes feels much forgotten.”

Photo: Diggle Rail Station circa 1960. Prior to the Beeching reforms the station was a major rail centre. (Courtesy of Diggle Community Association).