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2020 / 2021 Edition

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Aggregate Transportation

As issues such as traffic congestion, carbon emissions and road noise become increasingly important, transporting aggregates in an environmentally friendly way remains one of the key challenges facing the quarrying industry

A common problem all over the UK, and one that shows no sign of improving, is the rush hour snarl-up. There is simply no escape. As soon as you leave the house or office, traffic congestion is almost certain.

Since 1980 vehicle use has risen by more than 80%. In 2002 a survey found that there were more than 21 million cars, over 800,000 motorcycles and 75,000 public transport vehicles in England alone. This staggering rise in road usage has led to more pollution and greater congestion on the country’s roads. So what can be done to ease pollution and national gridlock in order to help Britain become a low-carbon society?

The Government’s message to everyone is to reduce energy use, make greater use of public transport networks and find environmentally sound alternatives to combat overcrowding on the country’s busy roads.

Today, most aggregates are moved by heavy goods vehicles (HGVs), but, where practical alternatives exist, the distribution of quarry products in future may see greater use of other modes of transport on a more frequent basis, with the aim of reducing the environmental impacts of road congestion and pollution.


Freight on rail has come a long way in the past decade or so. Since 1995 there has been a 60% growth in rail freight services, which has helped remove thousands of lorries from Britain’s congested roads.

In the year 2004/05 rail freight moved 20.66 billion net tonne kilometers – a 9.5% increase in freight activity over 2003/04, and a level of traffic not seen since 1977.

According to National Rail Trends, which contains information on passenger usage, rail performance and freight levels, during 2004/05 nearly 23 million tonnes of aggregates were moved by rail.

Network Rail, the organization that manages and develops the national rail infrastructure, says rail distribution of aggregate materials will increase by up to 26% by 2014/15, based on current levels. As a result, the rail freight industry is in the midst of planning and preparing for the future growth of rail services.

Freight on rail has proved to be one of the most environmentally friendly ways of transporting goods. The Rail Freight Group, which has been campaigning for several years for the Government to recognize the environmental benefits of rail freight, claims that, over the past six years, rail is estimated to have cut 2 million tonnes of pollutants, 6.4 billion lorry kilometres and 31.5 million lorry journeys.

This is not surprising, as recent studies have found that every tonne of freight carried by rail produces at least 80% less carbon dioxide than by road. Rail, therefore, has a pivotal role to play in tackling climate change, as Network Rail stated that an average aggregates train removes 120 HGVs from Britain’s roads.

Considering the current scale of congestion and pollution on Britain’s roads, removing HGVs would make a big difference from an environmental point of view. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) reported that road freight accounted for 8% of UK carbon dioxide emissions in 2005. This year, the figure has not improved, as carbon dioxide emissions from road freight has been identified as one of 17 measures that needs improving in the Government’s Sustainable Development Strategy.

However, steps are being taken to tackle this growing environmental problem. Earlier this year the Government announced that it will produce a rail strategy for the next 20 to 30 years, which will provide an overarching framework for regional and local authority spatial planning, which is vital for the further development of rail freight services.

Phillipa Edmunds of Freight on Rail, a partnership between the rail freight industry, the transport trade unions and Transport 2000, said: ‘We have highlighted the importance of a national strategy to provide guidance for regional and local policies. Without the appropriate national, regional and local planning framework, the rail freight industry can neither obtain planning permission to develop new rail freight interchanges nor justify long-term investment to increase freight carried by rail.’

Over the period 2000 to 2010, the Government targets a growth rate for rail freight of 80%. The big question is will the aggregates industry be making full use of freight carried by rail? It all depends on four key elements: cost; location; the length of the journey; and the amount of quarry products to be transported. There has been a long-standing belief that rail freight is limited to long-distance movements. Freight on Rail, though, says this is a common misconception.

Transporting aggregates as short a distance as 10–20 miles is viable, providing the right infrastructure, such as railheads, intermodal wagons and unloading equipment, is in place. Using an established freight operating company is vitally important too, as they have considerable expertise in developing and offering their customers train services to meet specific needs. They can provide locomotives, wagons, qualified staff and planning services.

In recent years, Lafarge Aggregates have made extensive use of the national rail network, having signed a long-term contract with EWS to ensure a majority of their aggregate products are delivered by rail each year. One of Lafarge’s busiest railheads is at their Mountsorrel Quarry in Leicestershire, where more than 500,000 tonnes of aggregates get distributed via rail annually.

Looking ahead, the company is keen to move more of its aggregate products by rail. An EWS spokesman explained why quarry operators such as Lafarge are now seeing rail freight as a better alternative than road transport.

‘It’s been widely accepted by the quarrying industry that rail has an environmental edge over roads. However, customers are also choosing rail for reliability and price,’ he said. ‘At EWS, we will manage the anticipated growth by operating longer trains and additional trains because there is plenty of room for more trains on the network, and the upgrades are creating more capacity for freight.’

In the public sector, Derby County Council has worked rigorously to increase the amount of freight carried by rail, as part of their commitment to promoting sustainable transport and reducing the environmental impact of road congestion and slow-moving traffic.

Today, the local authority’s hard work has resulted in the transfer of up to 7 million tonnes of aggregates per annum from road to rail. Kevin Williams, principal transport officer for Derbyshire County Council, says the success of this has been largely down to the council’s strong relationship with the rail freight industry.

‘We actively encourage quarrying companies, opencast firms and other local businesses to transport freight by rail instead of road wherever possible,’ he explained. ‘We’ve seen a 30% growth in rail freight in the last few years, and this has been achieved through influencing land-use planning, outlining the advantages rail freight brings, and helping firms apply for government grants.’

To date, the council has helped local companies win grants worth over £13 million for the continued development of rail freight operations in the county. Buxton Lime Industries (BLI), the lime and cement division of the Tarmac Group, have benefitted from nearly £12 million alone. At BLI’s Tunstead Quarry, near Buxton, the funding has provided 30 90-tonne tank wagons, giving the company the capacity to move 300,000 tonnes of cement by rail every year.

The substantial investment has also been spent on widening the rail freight network with three new distribution depots in Leeds, Walsall and London. The rail traffic, which is being operated by EWS for BLI, is believed to have annually removed 24,000 lorry movements and 4.5 million lorry kilometers from Britain’s congested roads.

Inland waterways

There are also environmental benefits to be gained by moving aggregates by water, as this mode of transport can relieve road congestion and considerably lower carbon emissions. However, inland waterway use is limited by the proximity of rivers and canals.

[img_assist|nid=12783|title=Inland waterways|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=301|height=200]Every year less than a million tonnes of aggregates is transported by inland waterways but, by restoring canals and abandoned waterways, the volume of aggregates being distributed in this way has the potential to rise. British Waterways, which cares for and manages more than 2,200 miles of canals and rivers in the UK, is committed to reversing the decline in waterways freight.

Last year, British Waterways and Transport for?London (TfL) jointly pledged over £1.6 million as part of an initiative to revive commercial traffic on west London’s canals. A large chunk of the funding has gone towards dredging bridge holes and problem areas to accommodate freight barges and improving the canal infrastructure for existing users. Other projects include a new canal wharf at Willesden Junction to serve a proposed recycling centre, and a canal turning point at Stockley Park near West Drayton, which will increase efficiency for both new and existing freight contracts.

Over the next few years there could be more investment in reinvigorating the UK’s inland waterways. In November, an EU initiative was launched that could see millions of pounds in funding released to aid new business, training and waterways infrastructure.

Simon Bamford, general manager of London British Waterways, welcomed the EU proposal. ‘Moving freight transportation from road to waterways represents a great environmental opportunity and a logical step to combating congestion on the UK’s overloaded roads,’ he said.

‘We believe they can provide a clean 21st century transport system, and we are working with Transport for London and other partners to exploit niche markets such as construction materials, waste and recyclables.’

Some of the quarrying industry’s leading players have already committed to delivering aggregates by water. In March this year, CEMEX began operating a waterways freight service through Gloucester’s historic docks. It was the first major barge freight activity in central Gloucester for over 30 years.

A 380-tonne barge travels between CEMEX’s processing plant in Ryall and the company’s ready-mixed concrete plant in Gloucester, covering a distance of 14 miles. Each barge journey by water takes 20 25-tonne lorry loads off local roads, and the fuel consumed is 50 times less than that required by a single lorry.

CEMEX also operate a waterways freight service over the two miles between the company’s Ripple Quarry and the Ryall processing plant. Both CEMEX’s new routes have been made possible thanks to channel improvements and dredging work carried out by British Waterways.

Back to road

The delivery of aggregates via road is by far the most commonly used mode of transport for the quarrying industry because of its economy, efficiency and convenience. It has been well publicized that road transport is not ‘eco-friendly’, but Nick King of environmental and engineering consultancy Entec, argues that several measures can be undertaken to reduce the environmental effects of HGVs.

‘The condition of a vehicle, including the standard of maintenance, freedom from mud and dirt, and the containment of its mineral load, forms a sound basis for this,’ he said. ‘Specific measures such as vehicle wheel and body cleaning, as well as sheeting of loads can help too. Also, transport operations can be improved by better driver training and site-specific training that highlights the sensitive areas where drivers must take care.’

By raising awareness of these measures and implementing industry best practice, the environmental impact of HGVs will be minimized. The Department for Transport (DfT) and Defra currently have a programme in place that promotes safe and fuel-efficient driving. FuelChamp, which was launched in 2004, is a public fuel advisory body that has been set up to assist lorry operators on how to save fuel, improve business profitability, promote safer driving and reduce toxic emissions.

The QPA is also doing its part by participating in research projects to identify and reduce the environmental impact of aggregates transport. The Association’s Transport Working Group is in the process of developing a range of driver training programmes for the quarrying industry.

While road haulage continues to be the dominant mode of freight transport, the quarrying industry itself has demonstrated that it is making good use of other modes of transport as well. This is a positive sign. In light of October’s release of the Stern Review, which has vehemently warned the world cannot wait before tackling climate change, the environmental and commercial benefits of moving aggregates by rail and water will become increasingly apparent.

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