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Rail freight: The missing link in London’s strategic planning

Despite a lack of consideration on how construction materials get to the right place, the strategic importance of construction rail freight in London cannot be ignored much longer.

The construction industry serving London is already maximising the rail network and 40 per cent of construction materials used in the capital are now delivered by rail.

However, the strategic importance of construction rail freight for London was conspicuous by its absence in the mayor of London’s recently launched draft transport strategy.

For a city with such a reliance on this transport mode, coupled with a political desire to reduce HGV movements and improve air quality, there was surprisingly little reference of the economic and environmental benefits of rail freight and its essential role in supporting the delivery of new infrastructure.

Consideration needs to be given to securing both the terminals needed to service the materials requirements of the capital, as well as the network capacity to enable transportation by rail.

There is also a clear opportunity for rail freight to be given more consideration and prominence in emerging transport plans as regional bodies explore modal shift and consider how to relieve pressure on their road networks, reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality.

The need for early planning

These omissions are symptomatic of a wider issue: the understanding of how our industry gets the required construction materials to the right place at the right time.

This is an issue not often given sufficient and timely consideration by clients, contractors and planning authorities, who can play important roles in helping to maximise the potential of rail freight for project delivery across the country.

Tarmac Rail Freight 2

Tarmac Rail Freight 2

Rail freight is a vital part of the construction supply chain with 20m tonnes of aggregates and cement moved by rail each year

The facts regarding rail freight are compelling. For example, it produces more than 70 per cent less carbon dioxide per tonne carried than the equivalent road journey, with one aggregate train removing up to 60 HGVs from the road.

“Early engagement is central to understanding the viability and implications of rail freight logistics to support sustainable project delivery”

While transportation of materials by rail freight takes more planning, and requires more capital investment in infrastructure and assets than road transport, it is significantly cheaper over medium-to-long distances.

To capitalise on these benefits, strategic planning at the earliest stages of projects is critical.

Early engagement is central to understanding the viability and implications of rail freight logistics to support sustainable project delivery, and ensuring operational solutions are considered from the initial stages of construction project planning.

Access to both sites and quality terminals are critical, and clients and contractor design teams need to develop site designs that can support rail freight from the outset.

Local planning authorities can support the consideration and uptake of rail freight and other sustainable transport options through the planning system.

Client role

There is an opportunity to encourage clients to consider multimodal options by placing a greater requirement for and political scrutiny of construction logistics plans at application stage.

Major infrastructure schemes, such as Heathrow’s ambition for regional logistics hubs, will hopefully help foster this mindset.

Chris Swan head of rail Tarmac

Chris Swan head of rail Tarmac

Chris Swan is head of rail at Tarmac

There is also a critical role for local planning authorities to play in safeguarding existing, planned and proposed rail depot sites alongside wharfs and associated storage, handling and processing facilities – all of which are strategically important to ensure the sustainable supply of construction materials to support the UK’s infrastructure pipeline in all regions.

“There is an opportunity to encourage clients to consider multimodal options by placing a greater requirement for and political scrutiny of construction logistics plans at application stage”

It is important for clients and contractors to consider rail-transported materials for both major infrastructure schemes and smaller development projects across the UK.

As an industry, we have a clear opportunity to raise the profile of rail freight and increase the volume of materials transported by rail.

An optimised and efficient rail freight network can help this country deliver its infrastructure ambitions, by ensuring essential construction materials are available at the right time and place, and are transported in a way that reduces carbon footprint, cuts road congestion and improves air quality.

Chris Swan is head of rail at Tarmac

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