Union Connectivity Review recommends better rail freight links at ports

The UK Union Connectivity Review, published today (Friday 26 November), has recommended improved rail freight at British ports to maximise the economic potential of the government-backed freeport network. The UK government commissioned the Review to examine existing infrastructure links between the four nations of the United Kingdom (UK). Other recommendations include a direct call to improve the northern section of the West Coast Main Line, the busy mixed-traffic corridor that connects Scotland and London.

Sir Peter Hendy, the chairman of Network Rail, the UK rail infrastructure management agency, has published the Union Connectivity Review, which he also chaired. The Review covers all modes of transport and connectivity and has much of its content devoted to passenger movement. However, freight movement is not overlooked, with reference to a need for a more holistic attitude to freight movement, encouraging the road and rail arms of government to work more closely together to develop a more efficient attitude towards freight logistics.

Port rail freight connections

The Review makes specific recommendations for improved connectivity to seaports across the United Kingdom. It says that by enhancing rail freight connections, the UK can maximise the potential of the freeports initiative. “By investing in improved connectivity to and from these economic hubs; and Maintain high environmental standards, such as the provision of electric vehicle charge points, the protection of the natural environment and integration with local active travel schemes and sustainable local transport options”, says the Review.

Better rail connections to ports are part of the Union Connectivity Review.

The Review looks at connections between Scotland and Northern Ireland – which has been the subject of grandiose plans for a 25-mile (40km) bridge between South West Scotland and Northern Ireland. That plan has been ruled out, but more practical solutions are sought, including better rail freight provision. “The challenge of connecting ports to the wider transport network was one of the key themes identified by respondents to the Review’s call for evidence”, says the Review. “The capacity and resilience, particularly of the A75 and the A77 [roads connecting to Scottish ports and Northern Ireland], was raised multiple times by different stakeholders. Other issues identified by stakeholders included a need to improve rail connectivity to ports for freight and to increase the UK rail freight gauge to W12, where possible, to support the movement of deep-sea shipping containers.”

Implications for the rail freight industry

Keeping the four nations of the United Kingdom better connected has been a key part of the UK government agenda under prime minister Boris Johnson. He commissioned an examination of existing infrastructure and sought recommendations on improving those links. The outcome – the Union Connectivity Review – has been published today. There are implications for the future of the rail freight industry within its 98 pages.

Better cleanse for intermodal traffic, says the Review. More traffic like this through Ely then (image by Luka Chalklin)

Bodies as wide-ranging as the Rail Freight Group and the British Ports Association and lobby groups such as the Federation of Small Business and the Campaign for Borders Rail are acknowledged for their contributions to the Review. All those bodies have a stake in the specific recommendations for West Coast connectivity. “Reduce rail journey times and increase rail capacity between Scotland and London, the Midlands and North West England
by upgrading the West Coast Main Line north of Crewe and reviewing options for alternative northerly connections between HS2 and the West Coast Main Line”, says the Review. “Seek to work with the Scottish Government to develop an assessment of the East Coast road and rail transport corridor from North East England to South East Scotland, including improvements on the East Coast Main Line.”

Collaboration between rail and road

The Review urges better collaboration between the UK government rail and road departments. “This Review has already identified a series of infrastructure improvements that will support the development of road and rail freight on the proposed UKNET [a proposed strategic body to oversee all UK communications infrastructure]. For instance, there is already strong collaboration between National Highways and Network Rail in England to develop common views of the freight markets on individual corridors and interventions such as rail capacity upgrades, rail gauge enhancements and road improvements”, says the report.

The scope of the Review is somewhat limited by the devolved nature of transport policy in the UK. Each of the devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have differing autonomy over transport development. The Review acknowledges this and, in effect, puts many of its recommendations into play, with the collaboration of the devolved governments both encouraged and required.

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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