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Freight-to-rail must be part of post-Brexit, post-Covid future

This article first appeared in Green World.

With the Brexit transition period close to ending and calls for a green recovery from Covid-19 growing, Sarah Gleave, Co-ordinator of the Dover and Deal Green Party reiterates the Green Party’s 2019 manifesto policy to move freight to rail to reduce road freight emissions.

lorry queue Dover_hero

We are the Green Party. Of course, our 2019 manifesto had sensible policies to reduce our dependence on heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) by investing in rail infrastructure that would allow us to shift freight from trucks to rail. Our manifesto promised ‘to increase rail freight capacity’, ‘ensuring good railway connections with all ports to enable more freight between ports and inland terminals to be carried on rail. We will invest in additional freight routes resulting in the majority of long-distance freight switching from road to rail.’

Our neighbours across the channel in France are taking action on this issue. On 27 July 2020, French Prime Minister Jean Castex announced the reopening of one line, Perpignan (Pyrenees) to Paris region, and a call for projects for two more new rail lines, Sete (Mediterranean) to Calais, and Bayonne to Cherbourg with investment funds committed. In the meantime, the French Government is investing €63 million in 2020 and another €63 million in 2021 on the tolls that freight trains pay the SNCF rail network to get 20,000 HGVs off the French roads in 2021. This is action for a Green recovery.

The French Prime Minister might have been nudged in this direction by the Green wins in local elections in June 2020. Europe-Ecologie/Les Verts (EELV) won the mayoralties and became the largest party (mostly alone, also in coalitions) in key towns including Lyon, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Poitiers, Besançon, Annecy, Grenoble, Paris and Montpellier. More motivation for us Greens to campaign to win in English county elections 2021? You bet.

In English shire counties, often with large Conservative majorities, many of us fully recognise the campaigning work of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE). Its 2020 campaign to ‘decarbonise transport for the countryside’ with its list of eight key asks of central government includes the statement: ‘Freight should be shifted from road haulage and HGVs to electrified rail services’.

Alas, British rail statistics 2020 showed rail freight at its lowest for 23 years and the General Secretary of RMT union Mick Cash said: “The government must ensure we get rail freight back on the rails and that this vital sector is fully supported as part of an integrated transport strategy that will become even more vital as part of the country’s post-Covid revival.”

We know from members who work in freight and rail that tunnels north of Kent’s HS1 are currently too low to take wagons with containers, so infrastructure improvements would need to include digging down and re-laying line. This is entirely doable.

The threat of what will happen if the bunglers in Britain’s central government don’t take action, is urgent and extreme in East Kent, in Dover District, where I am a local Green Party co-ordinator.

East Kent, its orchards, its seaside towns and its deprived housing estates, are threatened with 7,000 HGVs from two huge lorry parks in Thanet (Manston) and Dover (Whitfield), with two more lorry parks planned in Ashford for 2,950 lorries on the doorstep of East Kent’s main hospital. The threat includes three crawling queues of lorries on A20, A2, and A256 into Dover, roads familiar to anyone who has ever travelled through our spectacular, cliff-edge district to catch a ferry. Nobody deserves to have to suck up the levels of pollution these crawling lorry lines will produce. So let’s change central government plans for all of the UK’s towns and ports. Let’s campaign with distanced flash-mobs, on the streets, on-line, however we can, for a green, climate-friendly recovery and de-carbonised transport with freight-to-rail. Action now please!