Rail can often be cheaper than equivalent road hauls due to volume and distance economies.
The more frequent and regular movements are, the lower the cost will be – but this applies to total industry use rather than just one company’s movements. One pallet or container on its own could still be cost effective on rail if that pallet or container can be fitted onto a train that is running anyway.
Just as with offering a road freight load as a back load to take advantage of more competitive pricing, it is about taking advantage of the commercial opportunities that exist and looking at the whole logistics chain cost.
The fundamental economics of rail freight are that cost can reduce when whole trainloads can be consigned, or when trains can be jointly chartered by different shippers working together. These economies of scale can make rail cheaper over a wider range of routes. However, the volumes and flows need to be right to make rail an economic option and this needs to be researched properly first.
Rail can have a reliability advantage, as the rigorous discipline of the operational railway running to a timetable can help with logistics planning by giving certainty of departure and arrival times. This really does help with just-in-time logistics or lean stockholding/efficient ordering disciplines, where rail's timetabled reliability and discipline are a natural fit, rather than the vagaries of motorway congestion for example.
In some cases rail can deliver a logistics advantage through speed – with intermodal container trains timed to run at 75mph, representing a considerable saving over a 56mph hgv. Even slower moving heavy bulk freight trains are still faster than their road equivalents. Again, this helps with tightening up the logistics and manufacturing processes with rail being able to be used as an extended conveyor belt for these.
Over the last six years, rail freight in the UK is estimated to have saved two million tonnes of pollutants, by taking the place of 31.5 million hgv journeys and saving 6.4 billion hgv kilometres.
Due to the sheer quantity that a train can take, and the intrinsic energy efficient nature of it as a transport mode (due to lower rolling resistance), rail services provide considerable carbon savings over road freight transport. This is true for diesel traction which forms the majority of rail haulage, but even more so for electric. Where electric trains are able to run, the emissions at point of use are effectively zero, and the total pollution footprint will reduce as the electricity generation mix in the UK switches to less polluting sources in the years to come.
Every tonne of freight carried by rail produces at least 80 per cent less carbon dioxide than if moved by road. When compared with carrying the same tonnage by road, rail produces less than a tenth of the carbon monoxide, around a twentieth of the nitrogen oxide, and less than nine per cent of the fine particulates and around 10 per cent of the volatile organic compounds.