The UK relies on ports to handle 95% of goods which cross its borders. [1] Seamless connectivity between ports and our rail and road networks is therefore critical to our success as a trading nation.

A number of our ports have taken recent steps to boost their own infrastructure connectivity [2] – November 2014 saw PD Ports welcome the first Freightliner train at Teesport's intermodal rail terminal, as part of a £3m investment to improve connectivity for freight movements between the port and the rest of the UK; [3] the Port of Sunderland has recently reconnected with a previously decommissioned rail line (and the North East cargo hub looks forward to further intermodal enhancements this Spring with the opening of the Northern Spire Bridge); [4] and Peel Ports has just announced its partnership with DB Cargo UK (the UK’s largest rail freight company) to provide a new, first-time rail freight container service between Glasgow and the Port of Liverpool. [5]

Now, a new study published by the Department for Transport, with input from Network Rail, Highways England and the ports and wider freight industry (and its customers), looks set to boost traction in this area further.

Transport Infrastructure for our Global Future: a Study of England's Port Connectivity explores the current position on port connectivity in England, takes stock of what developments ports and the UK Government are making in our national transport networks and makes a series of recommendations "designed to develop a thriving port and freight sector which is at the heart of driving economic growth and future trade". [6] This study echoes previous reports, such as Transport for the North's recent "Strategic Transport Plan", which highlight the critical effect infrastructure and connectivity have on our economy.

Initial Industry Reactions

Reaction to the study has been very positive across the industry, with Alec Don (chair of the British Ports Association) saying that he was “delighted that the government has recognised the importance of port connectivity", and adding that “we hope the government will build on this good work, and future infrastructure and investment planning prioritises the free and efficient movement of freight”. [7] Meanwhile, James Cooper (chairman of the UK Major Ports Group) welcomed the study, noting that "as the UK nears Brexit, it’s vital that there is a focus on ensuring that we have the right infrastructure to enable trade. The study’s recognition of the need to take a joined up, multi modal approach to key trade enabling freight corridors anchored on major ports is particularly welcome". [8]

Genesee & Wyoming Inc. (ultimate parent company of the Freightliner Group) also announced its support for the study, describing it as "an important first step in underpinning the case for future investment to improve the efficiency of England’s inland transport networks to support future global trade" and noting that it "looks forward to working with the DfT to make the future case for enhancements to rail capacity and capability in Control Period 6 (2019-24)" to continue the success of the Strategic Freight Network Fund. [9]

It seems that the industry and Government are all pulling in the same direction, signalling good news for the sometimes-overlooked port and freight (particularly rail) sectors.

Enthused by the study and the actions of our industry contacts, the Womble Bond Dickinson transport team summarises below the connectivity problems facing UK ports (as highlighted by the study) and the proposals put forward by the Government for addressing them.

What is the current state of port connectivity and what are the issues?

Maritime Minister Nusrat Ghani MP, in announcing the publication of the study, stated that "around 95% of all goods entering and leaving Britain are moved by sea and the port sector contributes £1.7bn to the UK economy", adding that "once factors such as supply chains are considered, the port sector’s economic contribution to the UK is estimated to be £5.4 billion per annum". [10] The overall feeling, advocated by the study's Executive Summary and with which we would all agree, is that our ports are a success story.

Yet, despite the "fundamental role ports will play in our future as an island nation" [11], port connectivity problems affect the majority of UK ports, with the study identifying a number of key regional issues at each of the ports including: [12]

  • North East ports – the A1 north of Newcastle (a key route into Scotland) is currently only single carriageway and could benefit from becoming a dual carriageway; the A19 (the closest strategic road network to all of the North East ports) needs junction improvements and other upgrades; and congestion issues are identified by ports, local authorities and LEPS, spanning from Teesport to Northumberland. From a rail perspective, the reinstatement of passenger services and extension of the metro system to Blyth could impact on available rail slots, while connectivity problems at Teesport include Yarm tunnel restrictions, the Darlington loop and Northwest gauge clearance issues
  • Humber ports – relatively few road issues are identified by the study in this region, but there are still improvements that could be made (the A63 in Hull being a priority). From a rail perspective, Immingham, Hull and Goole all have active rail connections but there is a lack of W12 gauge clearance, restricting potential for growth and multi-modal solutions
  • North East Anglia and the Wash ports – ports in this area are located far away from the strategic road network and so local roads and immediate port access are the focus of the majority of the connectivity issues. The only port with an active rail connection in this region is Boston, placing an even heavier burden on the road network in the area – Boston port notes that the potential for rail freight growth is limited due to a lack of rail-linked distribution hubs
  • Haven ports – these ports are close to the national Strategic Road Network so issues centre on a lack of resilience on key routes (for example the lack of hard shoulder on the A14, meaning accidents can lead to delays, and congestion during peak periods on the A12 and A14). There are currently capacity constraints on the region's rail network, but it is believed there is potential for strong future growth in rail freight
  • London and Medway ports – the ports in this area depend on some of the busiest and least reliable sections of the strategic road network. The Dartford crossing is identified specifically as being unreliable, with a high accident rate, congestion and repeated closures. The rail network, on the other hand, has good links but the network needs to grow capacity in line with port growth, to maintain this
  • Kent and Sussex ports – the study notes that ports in this area are vital for trade with Europe, yet still the region suffers from connectivity issues: the A27 and the Dartford crossing on the M25 are bottlenecks, the A2/M2 route is seen as inadequate, and access roads to Newhaven are currently unsuitable for HGV traffic. Newhaven is the only port in this area to have a connection to the national rail network (Dover is not currently rail connected since the opening of the Channel Tunnel), and it is hoped that the planned closure of Newhaven Marine station to passengers will enable greater prioritisation for rail freight from the port
  • Solent area ports – road connectivity to the North is an issue for this region: one suggested improvement is to construct a viable route to the M4 from Poole. There is also limited infrastructure on key rail routes to the Midlands – Southampton is the only port in this area with an active rail connection, and longer sidings are required to house longer trains
  • Bristol and South West ports – journey time and reliability issues are among the concerns voiced by ports in the South West, both in the vicinity of ports (ie Bristol and Plymouth) and on key corridors, such as the A30, A38 and M5. Poor access from Plymouth city centre access to the A38 causes a delay in freight turnaround times and there is often peak congestion at Milford Haven and Bristol, especially in the summer months. Bristol is the only port in the South West connected to the national rail network (and W10 gauge clearance is required for such lines)
  • Mersey and North West ports – pinch points are reported on strategic and local roads, for example Cumbrian ports are constrained by poor connectivity to the M6, journey time reliability is noted as an issue with respect to the A5036 (which acts as the main access road to the Port of Liverpool), and there are concerns around capacity and road condition on routes around the ports of Workington, Barrow and Garston. Rail links to Liverpool, Manchester and the Cumbrian ports are relatively advanced, but (notably) further investment is needed on the Carlisle line to upgrade signalling and re-instate cross-over from mainline to port sidings.

So there's work to do! The study identifies or suggests solutions including those currently being considered by the Government or infrastructure bodies (such as the Dartford Improvement Package), and those which have already been approved (such as a programme of gauge clearance schemes to W12 in the North East region). However, more can still be done to support the industry and the study acknowledges this through its recommendations.

What are the study's recommendations?

As mentioned, the industry has not been shy in taking the initiative and investing in its own solutions, but it needs certainty and support from the Government to truly meet its potential. The study puts forward seven specific recommendations:

  1. Ports cannot operate in isolation/freight needs to be considered more holistically: the creation of a holistic "virtual" freight team to engage with the National Infrastructure Commission to ensure the interests of ports and cross-modal freight are recognised in their Freight Study and to better understand the cross-modal freight issues to make the case for freight in cross-government processes and initiatives
  2. Building an evidence base for freight and ports: for the DfT to build upon the findings of the study and conduct further data-focused analysis of the key economic corridors to ports to build an evidence base for freight and ports, including identifying the sums to be spent on port-related projects
  3. Understanding the potential for waterborne freight: to better understand the barriers, challenges and market opportunities of coastal and inland freight shipping
  4. Ensuring ports are consistently part of investment, infrastructure and planning processes: the establishing of regular engagement between sections of the DfT to ensure that the needs of ports are included in all high-level discussions regarding investment
  5. Enriching port communication – a role for industry: raising the profile of ports in economic and policy discussions including through ports working together (eg through UK Major Ports Group and the British Ports Association) to raise the bar on awareness and promote the importance of ports and for the ports industry to work closely with cross-modal freight industries and the wider supply chain to spread the message that freight connectivity is cohesive and ports are given appropriate weight
  6. Enriching port communication – a role for Government: in connection with the above point, ensuring that the DfT amplifies key industry messages by giving port connectivity sufficient space at strategy committees and ministerial round tables, facilitating regional events between ports and regional bodies, reviewing and republishing the Port Master Planning Guidance and investigating mechanisms to encourage data sharing by ports; and
  7. Informing the long term view – ports' contribution to "Maritime 2050": the DfT Maritime Modal Connectivity Team will work with the industry and trade associations in developing the Maritime 2050 plan to make sure the long-term vision for the sector (including port connectivity) is fully captured in "Maritime 2050".

Closing Remark

Ports are fundamental drivers of the UK's economy, therefore ensuring that they are sufficiently connected to the rest of the country's transport infrastructure is crucial for ongoing trade success. The Government's study admits that there is work to do here. Ports and freight operators have taken their own steps but a coordinated policy is required to help support the industry and allow it to truly achieve its potential. It is unusual for a government report to be so positively received and welcomed across the whole industry – a sign that the Government is waking up to the benefits port and freight can bring the wider economy, and is listening to the industry's needs.