The answer to this question is surprisingly obvious and simple: reduce the amount of road haulage and increase the amount of bulk movements.
The proposed government spend of £27bn on roads and road improvements could instead be spent on Freight Railway improvements, Freight Staging Areas and a unified Freight Movement Database. Superficial research indicates that parts of this proposal already exist.
The freight railway network would be improved from major ports / ferry terminals / airports by removing any restrictions that impedes the free flow of freight rail traffic. The network would link to a number of strategically place staging areas designated for rail freight transfer to road haulage.
Freight Staging Areas
These are areas that are geographically significant for industry and major conurbations. They will provide services for loading and unloading of freight and temporary storage. Last road mile delivery from these staging areas will use electric or hydrogen powered tractor units.
Freight Movement Database
The database would broadly have two functions: the equivalent of parcel tracking (but for freight) and a “click and collect” function. Freight entering the country can be pre-booked before arrival or booked on arrival. Pre-booking would reduce bureaucracy and hence time. Freight leaving the country would be pre-booked before movement and then booked out of the country at a port / ferry terminal / airport. The identification of the freight can be by simple bar code or QR code. Freight requiring real time tracking such as: high value / dangerous / perishable / urgent medical supplies etc. could use GPS tags with data fed back to the database over the mobile phone network (3G / 4G and future 5G).
It is possible that some ports may also function as Staging Areas where they are geographically close to the freight final destination. Examples of these would be Liverpool and London Docks. However, Freight Staging Areas such as Birmingham, Manchester etc. would send and receive freight from seaports / airports by train. Last road miles would be completed by electric or hydrogen powered tractor units. These types of tractor units already exist but hydrogen fuel supplies are currently very sparse. Therefore, a hydrogen fuel service could be incorporated at these Staging Areas. It should be noted that the intention of Staging Areas should lead to haulier tractor units not actually covering long distances and as such refuelling may be immaterial.
As freight enters or exits the country it will be registered and tracked using the Freight Movement Database. Like a parcel tracking service, companies will be able to log into the database to find out where their freight is. As mentioned above, depending on the freight type this information could be in real-time.
As inbound (to the UK) freight arrives at a Staging Area the database will send a notification to the company that owns the freight. They will arrange for a haulier to collect the freight. The haulier will book a collection slot. This will manage traffic into and out of the Staging Area and reduce the amount of temporary storage required. It is possible that fines could be levied if freight collection is not prompt.
The effects of the new variant of COVID-19 starkly demonstrated how the existing freight transport quickly descends into chaos.
If freight crossing from Europe to Dover had been towed onto and off the ferries using a mule tractor unit then the chaos could have been adverted as the drivers would not have been crossing the channel.
If Dover were to be a Freight Staging Area and for example the freight was destined for Birmingham (around 200 miles away) then this would be loaded onto a freight train at Dover and taken to the Staging Area near to Birmingham where it would be collected by a local haulier.
The proposed system does not preclude European hauliers driving freight to its final destination in the UK. The Freight Movement Database would have a number of “available slots” that could be pre-booked. The control of these slots would act as a tap for controlling the flow of long distant road haulage. Additionally a fee could be levied for UK road congestion and emissions particularly if the tractor unit was diesel. These fees could be used to finance Freight Rail, Freight Staging Areas and UK haulier’s costs in the switch to cleaner vehicles.
This entire proposal could be implemented given the political will. Parts of the proposal already exist but may require some enhancement and further integration into a common system.
The IT functions exist as features used by many different commercial companies.
Using this approach will reduce the opportunities for deliberate or inadvertent people trafficking.
Less European heavy vehicles on UK roads will lead to less congestion and more importantly fewer accidents.
UK haulier electric tractor units, if designed to support vehicle to grid power, could supply the National Grid with significant standby power and would also provide the hauliers with an extra stream of income.
Birmingham could be a key hub for the integration of freight and rail commuters.
If the development of Heathrow were to be switched to Birmingham airport this would further improve the hub and would signal to the rest of the country that the government is serious about creating a powerhouse in the North and spreading the benefits of our economy across the whole of the nation.