The National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) was launched by the then chancellor George Osborne in October 2015, to help identify priorities for the £100 billion set aside to spend on infrastructure projects before 2020. It was initially led by former Labour transport minister Lord Adonis and is now headed by Sir John Armitt, CBE, who also chairs the bus and coach operator National Express. He has also held senior positions in the rail industry.
Its report – Better delivery: the challenge for freight – gives as its first recommendation that government should, by the end of 2021, announce plans to ban the sale of new diesel-powered heavy goods vehicles no later than 2040.
It calls for assessments of the infrastructure required to support “battery electric or hydrogen HGVs, including the refuelling requirements at depots and key rest areas on major freight routes”.
This should include “enhancements to [electricity] distribution networks alongside alternatives to reinforcement, such as energy storage. For hydrogen, these assessments should cover the production, storage and distribution of hydrogen, including any dependency with the decarbonisation of the heating supply system.”
Ofgem (the government regulator of gas and electricity markets), should, NIC says, require energy distributors “to map out the infrastructure upgrades and opportunities for alternative solutions, such as energy storage, required to enable large-scale freight van charging at depots.”
Road pricing to reduce traffic is seen as an answer to congestion, because increased road capacity will be “filled again by people making new and different journeys”.
Better planning to reduce empty running “may help reduce the number of freight vehicles, but opportunities for significant improvement are limited”, the report adds.
In the urban arena, “consolidation centres have shown that they can reduce freight trips into congested areas, but commercial viability and industry appetite remain challenges to roll out. Much quieter electric vehicles and the use of codes of practice for quieter deliveries could make retiming far more acceptable in the short to medium term.”
However: “Firms will only be able to adopt practices that reduce congestion impacts if this will not put them at a disadvantage. That means there is an important role for urban local authorities in creating the conditions for innovation. Costs to consumers do not need to be high, as the industry will be able to respond efficiently to clear and stable regulation.”
NIC recommends that local authorities should develop integrated strategies for transport, housing and employment: “including a clear plan for helping freight operators to reduce the congestion impacts of freight activity. This means reviewing their local regulations to ensure they strike the right balance in different situations.
“Peak time kerbside restrictions may need to be tighter, encouraging more efficient activity when the road is busy. But this may be offset by a more relaxed approach to night time activity, especially for businesses meeting high standards for sensitive operation.”
Land should be made available for freight consolidation centres, to reduce the number of part-loaded vehicles entering congested areas.
Five pilot areas have already been identified for congestion-reducing innovations in freight: Bath, Brighton and Hove, Liverpool, Southampton and the West Midlands. The relevant authorities will publish their local infrastructure strategies by the end of 2020.
Major greenfield industrial and residential developments will need to have the needs of freight designed in from the outset: “where land is scarce, freight operations may not always be able to compete with housing development values, leading to longer distances to travel from depots to delivery destinations,” the report says.
“In some circumstances, there will be wider societal and economic benefits that justify preserving land for freight distribution or encouraging a greater mix of land uses.”
With hydrogen fuel cell or battery electric being identified as the best power sources for carbon-free heavy transport, the report argues that the UK’s electricity generation and distribution network must be substantially improved: switching the current truck fleet to electric power would increase the UK’s current electrical consumption by 25 per cent.
Many questions remain unanswered about hydrogen, the report admits: “The infrastructure required to enable hydrogen HGVs relates to four main areas: the production of the hydrogen, total electricity demand from producing hydrogen (if using electrolysis), and the distribution of hydrogen and refuelling facilities.
“Hydrogen is one of the least efficient methods for providing propulsion from electricity with a through‑chain efficiency of around 22 per cent, compared to around 73 per cent for battery electric vehicles.”
Hydrogen’s viability as truck fuel would depend upon many other factors, including whether the national heating supply network is in the future converted to carry hydrogen.
Even post-Brexit, the EU would be powerfully influential on UK efforts to decarbonise freight: “Regardless of the eventual UK‑EU relationship, it is imperative that the UK works with the EU to plan the transition to zero emission fuels, ensuring cross‑border road freight continues unhindered and that manufacturers are given confidence to produce a sufficient supply of zero emission vehicles.”
The report acknowledges the influence of large fleets on the whole truck market.
“A relatively small number of large firms control which new vehicles enter and remain part of the HGV fleet until the end of their useful life around 10‑12 years later – therefore the transition to zero emission vehicles is likely to be led initially by the largest fleets,” it says, warning that smaller operators with older vehicles may suffer disproportionate impacts if zero-emissions road freight is introduced quickly and without sufficient support.
Rail freight is also covered by the report, which acknowledges that electrification of railways or providing non-fossil power for locomotives will have significant costs. It argues that some existing rail freight could be transferred to zero-carbon trucks. Even if all freight were taken off the rails, it would amount to only a six per cent increase in freight tonne/km carried by road, and increase road traffic overall by just one per cent.
In terms of traffic congestion, trucks consist of only seven per cent of the vehicles on urban A roads, and generally they travel at less congested time. For instance, there is no evening ‘rush hour’ for trucks.
Experience of road pricing in London shows that it has little impact on freight traffic. Other modes, including portering, drones, robot ‘droids’ and ebikes are considered by the report, but it concludes: “Transporting goods by HGV or van is still the most efficient way of moving goods when vehicles are optimally loaded.”
The report argues the case for better-designed and placed depots.
“Ensuring that depots and warehouses can locate in places which minimise stem mileages (the distance from the distribution point to the first delivery address) allows for more intensive, optimised use of vehicles.
“Providing sufficient loading bay capacity at new developments means delivery drivers spend less time looking for space to park and load, and vans or lorries are not parked in a way which restricts traffic flow on the road.”
The Road Haulage Association (RHA) said that the NIC report lacked vision.
“Their recommendations are simplistic and fail to spell out how government should lead a realistic, supportive transition from diesel,” said chief executive Richard Burnett.
“New technology is welcome but it needs to be practical and affordable. A premature switch to zero-emissions lorries would disproportionately impact small freight operators.”
The call to ban the sale of new diesel lorries by 2040 was not credible, he argued, given the lack of viable alternatives on the market.
The Freight Transport Association (FTA) produced a more nuanced response, suggesting that a ban on the sale of new diesel HGVs by 2040 was “a feasible target” provided that appropriate government support was given.
Christopher Snelling, head of UK policy, said: “The logistics sector is more than willing to make the permanent switch away from carbon-based fuels, but the government must first ensure the infrastructure and funding is in place to support this.
“FTA is calling for the government to make the necessary investments into alternatively-fuelled vehicles before acting upon the NIC’s recommendation to ban the sale of new diesel HGVs by 2040.”