Philippa Edmunds, Freight on Rail Manager

National Minerals Strategy would cater for construction upsurge

Manager | Freight on Rail

Rail freight, which offers a key service to the construction industry, has seen an upsurge in rail borne demand for aggregates and cement.  Construction traffic increased by 17% during the year 2013/14 and continued to grow this year with a 9% increase over the previous year for the first quarter of 2014.  This growth has been driven by the following factors:

  • The economy picking up
  • Government infrastructure investment
  • Population growth and housing demand
  • Structural change in the construction materials industry in favour of fewer, bigger sites switching delivery mode to rail
  • The re-building of the country's energy infrastructure 

The Mineral Products Association, the trade association for the UK’s aggregates, cement and concrete business, suggests that there will be a 5% growth in the demand for these products over the next three to five years.  Therefore, we support its call for aNational Minerals Strategyto cater for the demand for construction materials for infrastructure, and housing projects and to maximise the economic benefits from increased Government infrastructure investment.  Without a strategy, domestic mineral extraction consents could be exhausted at a faster rate than new ones are being granted which could result in the need for importing aggregates.

A strategy, which requires no additional Government funding, would define the national need for construction materials within a spatial planning framework, which could advocate larger domestic sites to favour sustainable transport modes and avoid foreign imports.  A strategy could confirm that a healthy construction industry is vital to support economic growth and development and highlight the demand for construction materials.  It would give clear direction to local authorities, who are responsible for Minerals Strategies and granting planning permission for the majority of applications in their areas.

Without a strategy, it will much harder to source and deliver aggregates in the UK in a sustainable way in order to reduce road congestion, road damage, pollution and road collisions.  A shift to rail can significantly reduce all these adverse impacts on society and the economy.  Transferring freight to rail has huge road safety benefits as HGVs are five times more likely than cars to be involved in fatal accidents on local roads, because of their size and weight.  Even on motorways, which are perceived to be the safest roads, HGV are involved in 51% of fatal accidents even though they only make up 11% of the traffic, in terms of miles driven.

The costs to society and the economy of road damage from HGVs are large; road damage from the heaviest lorries is estimated to be 150,000 times higher than for a typical car.  Therefore the heaviest road repair costs are almost exclusively attributable to the heaviest vehicles, so the reductions in infrastructure costs of modal shift to rail are considerable.

Recent research carried out for Campaign for Better Transport, which used existing Government criteria, showed that infrastructure costs from HGVs are falsely low because capital costs of infrastructure are not included.  It can be argued that fuel duty does cover maintenance costs on motorways and A roads but not capital road costs on any road types.  On local roads, which are not built to the same specification as trunk roads and therefore are less able to cope with HGVs, neither maintenance nor capital costs are covered.

The economic benefits of reducing road congestion, which costs the UK economy £24 billion per annum, are massive.  Rail freight has an important role in reducing road congestion and thus improving productivity as an aggregates train can remove up to 136 HGVs from our roads.

In the absence of a National Minerals Strategy, there is a risk that GB domestic mineral extraction consents could be exhausted at a faster rate than new ones are being granted, which is a risk to the Government's own investment plans as well as general economic growth.  A national policy and planning framework would give guidance to local authorities and could speed up planning consents.  And society would benefit from materials being transported by low-carbon, safer rail freight which also reduces road congestion and road damage.

Freight on Rail