Any day in Ashford, I can stand on one of the bridges that run over the M20 and count the number of huge HGV lorries swishing by beneath. There are several every minute, in both directions. But at night I can also hear the rumble of the freight trains on the HS1 line. Some of these are bearing heavy loads of aggregates from places in the EU where they have been quarried. Some are bearing car-parts, as there is a regular flow from German manufacturers to Dagenham. This is all cross-Channel freight that goes through the Channel tunnel. The trains do not stop at Ashford station. If they need to stop, Dollards Moor, near Folkestone, is the freight yard, where the red DB trains can be seen parked.
Gateway to Europe
The fact that Kent is the Gateway to Europe is obvious. Sometimes, when there is stoppage on the M20 for any reason, it disrupts traffic for miles around. Wouldn’t it be better to shift more of this freight to rail? In the old days, when coal was the basis of industry and of home heating, coal was always shifted around by trains. But unfortunately, the rail gauges and loadings that were suitable for coal freight back then are no longer suitable for the new heavier gauges used in the EU for freight containers. If the UK could convert all railway lines to the new W12 standards, then the shift could make an enormous contribution in carbon-saving, as rail is so much more efficient than lorries.
HS1 is this superior gauge (hence the trains I can hear at night) but they. cannot schedule many more trains as there is also the problem of needing a suitable multi-modal destination (a place for off-loading the containers from train to lorries). When various sites along the HS1 route nearer London have been proposed, local people have campaigned against them.
So, a solution is to utilise railways that already exist, such as Dollards Moor to Wembley where there is already a multi-modal site. The West Kent railway via Tonbridge, either to Redhill or via Sevenoaks, would be expensive to convert to W12 because of the overbridge at Tonbridge station. For W12, the Saltwood tunnel just outside Folkestone would also need to be rebuilt.
W9a freight gauge
However, some ingenious engineers at Network Rail have come up with a proposal which would enable much more of cross-Channel freight to travel through Kent by rail. This is called the W9a freight gauge. They have worked out, inch by inch (or probably mm by mm), that small adjustments to the rail could enable the heavier freight to be hauled there. It means lowering some rails a little, or also in other places the trains would move more slowly to calm vibration. They reckoned this would only cost £10m.
Getlink, who control the Channel tunnel, are very keen to get more rail freight passing through, as this is more efficient than putting lorries on Le Shuttle. Within the EU there is a push towards shifting more freight to rail to combat climate change. But at a recent meeting, John Keefe of Getlink reported that the UK Government seemed to be about to turn down a proposal costing only some £42m for improvements to Kent railways for freight. It was not clear whether this includes the W9a proposal.
How serious is the UK about net zero?
If England is serious in meeting net zero climate targets, then we must stop subsidising road traffic and get more freight shifted to electrified railways. In much of the country, freight is still shifted in diesel trains because certain crucial bits of our old railways have not yet been electrified. The recent issue of Railwatch reported that electrifying just 50 miles of rail in five places would make a huge different to the amount of freight that could be carried daily on electric trains, for instance: two miles
at Thames Gateway (eight daily trains); three miles Acton West – Willesden (five trains); 19 miles Nuneaton-Birmingham (10 trains), 14 miles Felixstowe to Ipswich (40 trains).
The planning is complicated by the argument about the safety of electrification by the third rail which is much cheaper and easier to install than the overhead cables which are used on HS1. The third rail, carrying 750 volts DC, was used in England from the 1920s especially in the South. But, since nationalisation, the standard is now for trains that take the 25 kV AC electric power via their roof from the overhead lines. This is why Southeastern has dual-standard trains, which use the third rail on some lines and then raise their pantograph – the electric arm – at Ashford station to connect to HS1. In Wales they are electrifying the Valleys lines by erecting the pylons for the overhead system.
“And the first shall be last”
Britain was the first country to make railways. It is appalling when we take the old infrastructure for granted, and fail to grant attention or government money to necessary upgrades. Road freight is nine times more carbon intensive than rail freight. Let’s support proposals to send by rail more of the national freight that is currently carried through Kent on the M20.