Rail Freight is the Future

"When I drive to Scotland I know that the motorway will be full of Heavy Goods Vehicles.” So said the late Robin Cook when he spoke to ASLEF’s Freight on Rail lobby of parliament in July.

Robin was a great supporter of our campaign to get more freight on to rail and will be greatly missed across the Labour movement but certainly, I think, in ASLEF.

His comment summed up to a great extent precisely what this campaign is about. The public consciousness concerning the environment is now greater than it has ever been. Our surroundings have been ravaged by the shift over many decades to road transportation. We can see it in cities, towns and villages across the country.

However, there now must be a serious attempt to get more freight off the road and on to the railways; the alternative would be an environmental disaster. For instance, between 1980 and 2002, road transport increased by 73 per cent. No surprise there, but that in turn led to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions of 39 per cent.

Per tonne carried, rail produces around 10 per cent of the carbon dioxide produced by road transportation and, worse, it is estimated that road traffic will increase by 40 per cent by 2020.

The government is already putting grants into rail freight movement and railfreight is expanding more rapidly than the amount of freight carried by road. However, we have to go further if we are to avoid gridlock and further environmental damage.

Crucially, the government must resist any pressure to give the go-ahead for 60-tonne lorries to be allowed on to British roads. The road haulage industry has produced arguments for this along the lines that the bigger lorries will cause less damage than smaller lorries. Whatever pseudo-science is used to support this, we all know that lorries damage roads and bigger lorries cause more problems. That is why is a recent poll conducted by NOP and commissioned by ASLEF, the overwhelming majority (56 per cent) of those questioned said that the bigger lorries should be kept out.

And, even now, a 40-tonne, five-axle lorry causes more than 10,000 times more damage to road surfaces than the average car.

We also need to be assured that the rail network will be maintained in a way that will ensure it can take all forms of freight and parts of the network require enhancement to take modern, large containers. For example, the route from the port of Southampton to the West Midlands requires pretty urgent upgrading, as does the North London Line, which links North Woolwich and Richmond and, perhaps rather surprisingly, carries a great deal of freight.

Clearly, we are talking about large amounts of capital investment against a background of £85 million of public investment going into rail every week – something, incidentally, the old British Railways Board could have only dreamed of.

Public ownership would be the obvious and sensible option and one that receives widespread public approbation, from traditional Labour, industrial heartlands to Tory-voting retired colonels living Tudorbethan splendour among the Home Counties. Nevertheless, until that glorious day dawns ministers will surely – and reasonably – expect a financial contribution from the private sector.

In the meantime, ASLEF will continue to campaign. There are two parliamentary motions supporting freight on rail, both of which have the support of around 60 MPs. We would advise Morning Star readers to contact their MPs and ask them to support both early day motions (numbered 528 and 590). We will also be lobbying parliament in October, our second lobby.

There is also scope for persuading local authorities to adopt pro-freight on rail policies. Some councils, such as Argyll and Bute, have set targets for increasing the amount of freight being moved by rail within their boundaries.

However we do it, this is a campaign we must win, for all our futures.

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