Experts

Freight will clog up M4 after Severn Tolls are scrapped, experts warn

There are fears 700 extra lorries a week will clog up major routes in south Wales after the tolls on the Severn bridges are scrapped.

Experts fear that that freight will move away from rail service and onto the M4 when the tolls cease late next year.

They say that while a a rail freight terminal built with taxpayers’ money could become idle, there will be increased congestion around the notorious Brynglas Tunnels at Newport .

The £15m Euro freight terminal at Wentloog, Cardiff , was opened in March 2001 by Rhodri Morgan, then First Minister.

The aim was to reduce road traffic and boost the Welsh economy by plugging in to the Channel Tunnel and major ports.

The terminal now receives two trains of containerised goods daily. Between them the trains save an estimated five million lorry miles a year from some of Britain’s most congested roads.

However, the UK Government’s promised abolition of the Severn motorway tolls – currently £20 for lorries – by the end of next year will cut the cost of transporting goods by road.

This could result in freight being switched from trains to lorries, increasing the strain on the M4 west of the Severn Crossings.

The Second Severn Crossing

One of the freight trains to Wentloog, from Southampton docks, is already reeling after the UK Government withdrew its grant funding last April.

The Mode Shift Revenue Support grant recognised the environmental and safety benefits of the containers being transported by rail instead of road. The other train to Wentloog carries Tesco goods from Northamptonshire.

“The removal next year of the £20 per lorry charge for crossing the Severn Crossing will be a further blow and will make it even more challenging for the rail service to compete with lorries,” said Philippa Edmunds, of the Campaign for Better Transport.

“It will be difficult for rail to continue to compete without some support to these rail services that are key to the Welsh economy and in removing lorries, not only from Welsh roads but from the busy road network in the West Midlands and radiating from Southampton.

“When it takes off those tolls, the government should give commensurate support to rail freight on the basis that it’s much safer, much less polluting and reduces congestion.”

The Wentloog terminal is operated by rail cargo specialist Freightliner, which partly funded its construction. Lindsay Durham, Freightliner’s head of rail strategy, said the company was concerned at the potential impact of the tolls’ abolition, which she said would cut about £200,000 a year from the cost of transporting the same number of containers on lorries instead of the current trains from Southampton to Wentloog.

“This will of course have an impact on rail’s competitive position,” she said.

“Freightliner will do everything it can to maintain rail services into Wentloog terminal, but the combined impact of the loss of Mode Shift Revenue Support grant in 2017 and the reduction to lorry costs to Wales from 2018 because of the toll abolition are not helpful in supporting this aim.”

The tolls’ abolition also jeopardised future growth at the terminal, which has always operated below its capacity. “It will make it harder for rail to compete with road for new flows,” she said.

The Severn Bridge tolls
The Severn Bridge tolls

Freightliner has asked the UK Government to reinstate the grant for the Southampton train.

In June a YouGov opinion poll, commissioned by the Campaign for Better Transport, revealed that 61% of those questioned wanted more freight transported by rail and 63% supported increased government funding to allow growth in rail freight. Only 3% opposed increased funding.

Ms Edmunds said that since 2011 fuel duty for lorry operators had been frozen but charges paid by freight train operators for use of the rail infrastructure had increased by more than 20%.

The UK Government’s Department for Transport has been asked to comment.

A Welsh Government spokeswoman said: “We recognise the numerous benefits of moving goods by rail and already provide a public subsidy for the Wales element of the rail freight movements. This is ultimately a matter for the UK Government, and we have been pressing them to invest towards enabling the efficient movement of goods by rail into Wales for the next railway control period.”

The next five-year control period starts in 2019.

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