Lorries will travel by rail to reduce Britain's reliance on roads

The Future
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The next generation of lorries will run on rails.

The next generation of lorries will run on rails.

Britain's dependence on lorries for carrying goods around the country, graphically exposed by the hauliers' protests, is about to start changing, with the advent of the "mini freight vehicle" - in effect a lorry on rails. The innovation will go on trial in the spring and is aimed specifically at lighter goods.

It is based on Railtrack's "multi-purpose vehicle", which carries track maintenance equipment and can match the performance of passenger trains in terms of acceleration and braking ability. Each train will be 300ft long compared with the 2,600ft of the traditional goods trains but they could be coupled together to take larger loads.

Among the half -dozen companies attracted by the project is Marks & Spencer, which will use the service to transport clothing and foodstuffs from the Midlands to Scotland. Safeway is already transporting chilled and frozen foodstuffs by rail from Glasgow to Inverness. The new Tyne Dock Rail Freight Terminal is intended to save about 90,000 lorry journeys over five years.

Nearly two-thirds of freight is carried by road. In the past 10 years, heavy goods vehicle (HGV) traffic has increased by 38 per cent and van traffic by 40 per cent. If nothing changes, between 1996 and 2006 lorry traffic will grow by 16 per cent and van traffic by 44 per cent.

There is some evidence businesses are already looking for an alternative. Rail's share of the freight market grew by 16 per cent in 1998-99 after a 12 per cent increase the previous year. Rail freight traffic has continued to grow since then, albeit at a slower pace.

Rail's big problem is its limited coverage and its identification with the carriage of bulk materials. Half the journeys undertaken by freight trains involve the movement of coal, construction materials, metals and industrial minerals.

Tara Garnett, of the pressure group Freight on Rail, points out that a typical goods train can move more than 1,000 tonnes of products, equivalent to 55 HGVs. "Rail can't be the solution to all freight problems but it could carry more goodsthan it does," she said.

Rail has a prejudice to overcome: tales are legion about unreliability. More disturbingly the Post Office, one of the biggest users of rail services, has recently let it be known that if the industry did not improve, the Royal Mail would increasingly be carried by road.

Less of a threat to the power of militant hauliers is the canal network. However, the Deputy Prime Minister believes the infinitesimal proportion of goods currently carried on the waterways could be increased substantially. John Prescott believes that 3.5 per cent of freight could be transported by water using the existing network.

The canals in Yorkshire and the North-east carry nearlytwo-thirds of goods transported by water. Significantly, canals also now carry petroleum from the coast to Leeds. Ministers are attempting to encourage what little growth there is. Grants for new projects switching goods from road to canal stood at £2.29m between 1983 and 1997 but the Labour government has spent £9.82m.

Clearly the Government is encouraging this activity. Ministers will think long and hard, however, before persisting with their policy of pricing lorries off the road. Ministers may feel now is the time to put away the stick and produce the carrot.