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HGV crisis – the answer is rail, not road

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Jonathan Edwards, transportation market leader – EMEA at global professional services company GHD, argues that the HGV driver shortage should be driving more freight onto rail.

Jonathan Edwards, GHD.

The ongoing crisis and shortage of drivers for heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) has impacted our supermarket aisles, restaurants and retail stores, to name but a few. With the huge impact on the UK logistics sector, it’s understandable that the government would rapidly roll out a series of announcements and initiatives looking to fix the problem.

However, by offering only a short-term solution, it runs the risk of a short-sighted approach. The long-term answer is not to continue to sustain and move huge amounts of goods by road but to invest and grow the ability to move more goods by rail.

Every freight train removes 76 lorries from our roads, according to the Rail Delivery Group (RDG), cutting carbon emissions and congestion across the country and improving the air quality and safety of our streets.

Speaking recently at the ‘Achieving UK Rail Decarbonisation Conference’, I outlined how integration, transparency and incentives offer a framework that can help industry players transition to a less carbon-intensive and more sustainable and successful rail sector. This transition presents the opportunity to alleviate future pressures and limitations on our logistics sector and the movement of goods internationally and nationally.

Freight movement on our rail network has already bounced back quicker to near pre-pandemic levels when compared to passenger travel and more should now be done to alleviate capacity constraints and drive growth.

Freight operating companies need confidence in the future electrification programme across our routes, as well as incentives and support when choosing to invest in their future rolling stock. The pinch points in the UK network also need urgent attention, with sustained investment in the infrastructure and an integrated programme to provide greater capacity and opportunities for freight.

Every freight train takes, on average, 76 heavy lorries off the roads.

Currently, around 90 per cent of in-use freight rolling stock is diesel-only and the Decarbonising Transport Plan, released by the DfT (Department for Transport), talks of incentivising “the early take up of low carbon traction for rail freight”. Diesel trains already save 76 per cent of carbon per freight-tonne-mile compared to road, and their use removes nearly 6.5 million lorries per year from our roads.

The main causes of the HGV driver shortages are pay, working conditions and limited career opportunities. Combined with the future disruption that innovation will have on the sector with increased electric and automated vehicle use, as well as the pressures to make our streets safer and the need to decarbonise transport, the answer to our supply issues cannot simply be to attract more lorry drivers and add more lorries to our roads.

The private and public sector should invest more time in considering the movement from point of origin to point of destination. We need to encourage greater innovation into the market, develop more accurate ways of capturing data and apply different forms of data intelligence to the planning and operations of goods movement by road. But, importantly, part of the answer is also to invest in the movement of goods by rail – where a long-term return on investment in jobs, supply chain resilience, decarbonisation and economic generation is available.

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