Is High Speed Rail The Future of European Freight?

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HSR & Freight Benefits

There has been huge debate about high-speed rail in the past couple of years, with the proposed construction of HS2 between London Euston, the Midlands, and Scotland. Many argue that the UK lags behind in terms of its rail network, and HS2 is put forward as a development that will bring Britain into line with much of Europe.

The government argues that HS2 will bring multiple economic benefits to many areas of the UK, but there has been strong opposition from environmental groups, local landowners, and economists across the country. This opposition is being stubbornly fought off in the courts, with the view that high-speed rail is the way forward and should spearhead the UK’s economic push into the coming decades.

High-Speed Rail

So, what exactly is the difference between high-speed rail and traditional rail? As the label suggests, high-speed lines operate trains that are much quicker than traditional systems. In 2011, the ‘maximum commercial speed’ on many of the world’s high-speed lines was 186mph. For new specialist lines, the minimum speed is approximately 155mph, and for adapted tracks, the recommended minimum is around 124mph.

Many countries have invested heavily in high-speed rail links, with China leading the way by pumping €224 billion into 17,000 miles of new tracks, which will reportedly be operational by 2020. Japan has also invested considerably in their rail network, and France’s TGV operation is considered one of the world’s most efficient. Germany and Belgium have also worked together to cut the travel time between Brussels and Frankfurt by 45%, and in Spain the high-speed link between Madrid and Barcelona has reduced travel time by about 60%.


The first high-speed rail link to be constructed in the UK is more commonly known as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link, which connects London to the opening of the Channel Tunnel in Folkestone, Kent. In a 1999 survey of engineers, the Channel Tunnel was voted the best construction achievement of the 20th Century. Few would argue that this development was highly significant for trade and economy of Britain, with a reported 10 million passengers per year using the service. Furthermore, it is estimated that approximately 20 million tonnes of freight went through the Channel Tunnel in 2011.

The link from the mouth of the tunnel into Central London is essential, and with the condition that domestic travellers are also able to use the service to get into the city, this has brought around £3.8 billion of economic benefit to Kent. House prices have gone up considerably in the area, as the high-speed line offers an ideal commuting service into the capital.


According to the official HS2 website, there are a number of economic benefits that would arise from its completion. The website suggests that the new link will generate; “£59.8 billion in user benefits when the entire network is completed, as well as £13.3 billion in wider economic benefits.” They also argue that for every £1 invested, HS2 will eventually generate over £2 worth of benefit.

The government also promotes the benefits that HS2 will bring to the jobs market. By their research, phase one will create 9,000 construction jobs, 1,500 permanent jobs, and 30,000 jobs in station redevelopment. Phase two is apparently likely to support the creation of up to 70,000 jobs, and up to 7,500 houses. According to these statistics, the ‘Western Leg’ could create over 40,000 jobs and the ‘Eastern Leg’ could contribute to approximately 25,000 jobs.

These are bold predictions, and many have challenged their feasibility. People have also challenged HS2 on its environmental consequences. Legal cases have been brought forward to suggest that the government didn’t properly assess the environmental implications of the line. Aylesbury Park Golf Club has also raised concerns about the proposed route passing through their property. These disputes are ongoing, with the potential for a future Supreme Court decision sometime in the future.

European Freight

Whilst there is many an argument to suggest that high-speed rail can benefit people getting from place to place, there could also be benefits to transporting goods across the country and across Europe. From commercial goods such as vehicles, clothing, and electrical items, to raw materials such as coal; shipping products efficiently is essential to a strong economy.

Across Europe, high-speed rail is more regularly used for passengers, but there are examples of it benefiting freight also. In France, the mail service La Poste carries postal freight on high-speed lines, and in October 2013, it was announced that DB Schenker Rail would operate a regular freight service between Wroclaw in Poland and Barking, London. This service runs on the HS1 line; currently the only ‘European-sized’ track in the UK.

According to a press release on the DB website, “the significantly larger haulage capacity available from these swap bodies, with an internal height of three meters, means two standard pallets can be transported stacked on top of each other. This provides an efficient and economic means of transporting the maximum amount of product per train.” The DB UK Chief Executive, Alain Thauvette, said; “this is an important step for rail freight in Europe, as a new market has been developed and a new trading route opened.”

But could more be done to improve Britain’s capacity for rail freight? According to many in the industry, there are plans afoot to further increase the level of freight on the HS1 line, which would be a positive development. This includes a plan to link Lyon to London with a freight train carrying parcels and ‘premium consignments’. Others have suggested that a link between HS1 and HS2 should be created, in order to maximise the potential for running goods further without the need for transfers.

Indirect Benefits

Although the commitment to high-speed freight might be cautious, there are other ways that high-speed lines can make freight more efficient. With services transferring to high-speed routes, this frees up space on the original lines for more freight units. According to a piece on, “these extra train paths, the freight operators argue, should remove up to half a million HGVs off the UK’s busiest roads annually creating better travelling conditions for motorists and reduce pollution.”

According to the same article, the managing director of GB Railfreight said; “By freeing up rail freight capacity on the West Coast Main Line, HS2 has the potential to radically transform the volume of goods moved around the country, resulting in a much-needed increase in UK productivity, an energetic growth in our exports market and relief for our congested road system.”

This congested road system is, indeed, an important consideration. By improving rail networks across the European continent and aligning Britain’s tracks with those of these high-speed links, the impact of HGVs on roads and traffic in the UK can be significantly reduced. As well as reducing costs on fuel, this would also positively impact the environment and reduce the carbon footprint of the organisations that utilise the routes.

Large corporations are already turning to rail more readily, and according to an article on, “the total amount of freight moved by train in 2011-2012 grew by 10 per cent compared to the previous year, the highest level since before the recession. And rail freight is predicted to have doubled by 2030.” Companies such as Tesco and Sainsbury’s are choosing to transport goods by rail more regularly, and the proposed developments to high-speed rail in the UK will surely further increase this interest.

At Marpak, we maintain a keen interest in freight and logistics, and work consistently to make our packaging products as effective as possible for our clients. If you have any particular suggestions, or if you would like to know more about our products, please get in touch by calling 0113 277 5518 or by contacting us online.

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