Construction is discussed in terms of a ‘pipeline’. A lack of awareness of the importance of the smart delivery of materials could cause a blockage.
Construction is often discussed in terms of a ‘pipeline’; a word which can imply progress, planning and, critically, supply. Ironically, a lack of awareness from regional policymakers of the importance of the smart delivery of materials could cause a blockage.
Rail freight is already an integral part of the UK construction supply chain, with more than 20 million tonnes of aggregates and cement moved by rail each year. These impressive tonnages are on the rise, yet rail freight was conspicuously absent from the Mayor of London’s draft Transport Strategy.
The omission is particularly disappointing given that 40 per cent of construction materials used in the capital are already delivered by rail. It’s also somewhat unsurprising.
Despite its strategic importance, there is often a lack of consideration given to rail freight’s potential to support project delivery, relieving pressure on road networks and reducing carbon emissions. London’s draft Transport Strategy will doubtless be revised following the consultation period, which ended on 2 October, but other regions have the opportunity to learn from the capital’s initial oversight.
Currently, two of the six new metro mayoral regions, the West Midlands and Greater Manchester, have a dedicated freight strategy in place. While it is encouraging to see in both acknowledgement of the freight market’s rapid growth in recent years, there is further opportunity for the consideration of its importance to construction.
The omission is particularly disappointing given that 40 per cent of construction materials used in the capital are already delivered by rail
With growing private sector investment in the rail network and HS2 expected to release capacity for freight movement over the coming decades, now is the time for meaningful discussions about the role of rail freight in powering regional aspirations and unlocking a low-carbon built environment.
Rail freight has a critical role to play in delivering quality service, environmental and cost benefits to the construction sector against a backdrop of major infrastructure growth. Supply by one aggregate train is the equivalent of removing up to 60 HGVs from the road. It also produces more than 70 per cent less carbon dioxide per tonne compared with the equivalent road journey. As congestion and air quality continue to grab inches in both broadsheets and policy papers, these sustainability credentials cannot be ignored.
At medium to long distances it offers better value for money than using the road network, but capitalising on these benefits requires robust planning now. Emerging regional strategies must seek to maximise rail freight’s potential or else suffer a missed opportunity for a modal shift towards an efficient, low carbon supply chain.
Capital investment in infrastructure will be necessary, but the protection of strategic rail freight depots from inappropriate adjacent development is also essential
The provision of accessible and quality railheads is vital, not only for major infrastructure schemes like Crossrail 2, but also smaller projects across the UK that could benefit from cost savings and sustainable delivery.
Capital investment in infrastructure will be necessary, but the protection of strategic rail freight depots from inappropriate adjacent development is also essential. Particularly in urban locations, where demand for more terminals to support construction traffic is acute, railhead locations must be carefully chosen and safeguarded.
However, the onus does not rest solely with policymakers. A collective effort from the construction industry is needed to maximise the use of rail freight, ensuring efficient and sustainable delivery not only of building materials, but of the infrastructure projects that will shape the nation’s future.
Crucially, early engagement with materials providers is key to understanding the value and viability of rail freight to support delivery. Collaborative working across the supply chain should begin at the earliest opportunity, ensuring logistical solutions are considered from the outset.
Site access, for example, is critical. Clients and contractor design teams need to develop site proposals that can support the use of rail freight. Here, local authorities have the chance to drive uptake by scrutinising applications that do not consider sustainable multimodal logistics options.
The opportunity is clear, but to keep the UK’s construction pipeline on track, it’s time for policymakers, materials suppliers and the wider construction industry to start talking rail freight.