Just last week, the Minister for Transport, Paschal Donohoe, T.D., announced the allocation of €13.5 million in 2016 for sustainable transport projects in our regional cities. The Minister noted, ‘Providing more sustainable travel options in our regional cities is becoming increasingly important as congestion levels are on the increase again’. Projects that will benefit are road improvements and junction upgrades to improve bus priority, the provision of additional cycle infrastructure and improvements to railway and bus stations.
Another option for promoting more sustainable transport, saving on CO2 emissions and relieving our congested road network is to support greater freight traffic by rail.
It is not well known that three of the four rail freight services currently in operation start or finish in the West. A report published last month by the Western Development Commission (WDC), Rail freight and the Western Region notes that rail currently moves less than 1% of surface freight across Ireland and most of this rail freight originates in the Western Region. Irish Rail plans to quadruple national rail freight traffic within 4 years and much of this traffic could be from the Western Region. In the short-term this could double from 4 to 8 trainloads per weekday and each trainload removes approximately 18 truckloads from the road network.
Rail freight, where available, offers several advantages over road transport. It generates less than a quarter of the emissions of road haulage, removes heavy goods traffic from the road network and it can provide an alternative and efficient route to market for business, avoiding congested routes and availing of the existing rail network.
The WDC report identifies traffic which could be transported by rail and also identifies the policies needed to support this growth.
Demand for new rail freight services comes following a period of continued under-investment and rationalisation of rail freight infrastructure and rolling stock. To assist Irish Rail develop the traffic potential and associated direct / indirect benefits to the country, the WDC report highlights some policies which can support the growth of this sustainable mode including:
- A policy framework for freight transport is needed which sets out the multi-modal context of road, rail, air and sea which is central to supporting the wider economy.
- Safeguarding and/or enhancing rail access into ports is needed – Dublin and Waterford have played a valuable role in the recent growth of rail freight. Policy support and investment in other ports such as Shannon Foynes, Galway and other ports, will be needed to reduce potential congestion and/or over-dependency on Dublin.
- Maximising the use of the existing rail network such as using longer trains, use of the rail network at night, and engaging a bigger fleet of traction and rolling stock will all help grow the traffic volumes carried by rail.
- Across many counties there have been initiatives to support new rail freight services – in Europe this has been largely based on the environmental benefits of rail freight compared to road freight. This has been done in absolute terms for example the European Commission’s former ‘Marco Polo’ mode shift programme (which closed in 2013) provided grants to offset the costs of starting up new intermodal and multimodal freight projects, the level of grant based on rail’s societal advantage over road estimated at €0.004 per tonne km. The Commission is currently considering a possible replacement for the Marco Polo programme.
- In the UK supports are available based on the benefit:cost ratio (eg 4.27:1 for Great Britain rail freight revenue support grants and 12.51:1 for Marco Polo mode shift grants). Most of the intermodal services in the UK serving maritime and domestic customers have at some stage received revenue support grants.
The Government needs to de-carbonise the economy and the transport sector represents a major contributor to energy consumption and emissions. If greater efficiency is to be derived from freight transport, both road and rail will need to be exploited to their maximum extent, with the rail network having considerable untapped capacity. This is even more apparent with the increasing congestion evident on parts of the road network.
It seems the Department of Transport is now considering whether and how rail freight can play a greater role. According to Building on Recovery: Infrastructure and Capital Investment 2016-2021 (September 2015) the Government will commission a feasibility study to examine options for expanding freight transport on the railways. This is to be welcomed and it is to be hoped work on this will commence very shortly so that opportunities to move traffic more suited to the rail network will not be lost.
While rail freight will continue to play a relatively small role compared to road transport, there is potential to grow volumes which will not only capitalise on our existing rail network but will also deliver wider public and societal benefits in terms of lower emissions and reducing traffic on the congested road network.
 WDC counties; Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, Galway and Clare
 Department for Transport Review of Revenue Support Freight Grant Schemes Summary Report, Arup 2014
 Ex ante Evaluation Marco Polo II (2007-2013), Final Report for the European Commission, ECORYS Transport June 2004, section 10.4