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INSIGHTS: Shifting modes and switching to alternative fuels – the Midlands is gearing up to decarbonise transport

Published: Monday 04 April 2022

INSIGHTS: Shifting modes and switching to alternative fuels – the Midlands is gearing up to decarbonise transport

Only last week, an exciting project called ‘Humber Hub Blue’ was proposed by energy giants Shell and Uniper, outlining plans to process ‘blue’ hydrogen (derived from natural gas and steam) at a plant in Killingholme, Lincolnshire. This ambitious scheme is one of many exciting developments in the world of alternative fuels, a budding industry essential to the future of our transport network. The use of blue hydrogen could be key for a long-term transition to cleaner ‘green’ hydrogen (derived from ‘green’ electricity and water using electrolysis) within the transport industry.

With Government mandating zero carbon emissions from transport by 2050, as set out in last year’s Transport Decarbonisation Plan, it really is a race against time to secure alternative fuels to power green transport systems across the country. Electric vehicles are making serious strides in the car market, with sales of all new petrol and diesel vehicles stopping in 2030, but how do we also eliminate emissions from moving heavy goods long distances?  

Cleaning up the logistics industry is especially important for us in the Midlands, as this growing industry has boomed here in recent years. Our region is home to a large section of the ‘logistics golden triangle’ between Nottingham, Kidderminster and Bedford and a preference for online deliveries has led to the East Midlands building the most new warehouse space of anywhere in the UK last year.

Our central location makes us attractive to distributors and to support this, we’re thrilled that Midlands Connect has been selected by the Department for Transport as the lead sub-national transport body (STB) for alternative fuels. Bringing together five other STBs in the biggest collaboration project since STBs were founded, we’re really looking forward to talking all things alternative fuels with our STB colleagues in person this May at the STB conference in Birmingham – you can sign up to attend this event here.

We’ve been given support to create a tool to help local authorities across the country find the best locations for refuelling and recharging with alternative fuels. This tool is benefiting from activities like our H2GVMids group bid to run 44 ton hydrogen powered trucks across a network of refuelling stations.

Whilst location for hydrogen refuelling is extremely important, our research reveals it’s not everything. We’ve discovered that truck drivers will travel up to thirty miles out of their way to use a favourite rest stop and refuelling station which meets their needs and preferences. As such, Midlands Connect is working closely with the logistics industry today, to establish preferred facilities and trade routes, paving the way for an efficient, green, futureproofed and inclusive freight refuelling network into the future.

Road transport is the primary method for moving goods around the UK today and we know we can work to clean it up but is road the only answer? We certainly don’t think so.

Switching fuels from polluting petrol and diesel is a really important step in the journey towards zero carbon transport by 2050 - but only when done so in conjunction with modal shift. Shifting freight from road to rail reduces emissions by around 75%, even when trains are diesel powered. We know that changes must be put into place to make it easier and more attractive for businesses to shift to rail freight in order to see widespread change. From rail freight facilities designed to suit the goods in question, whether ‘just in time’ deliveries of fruit and vegetables or aggregates and heavy materials, to improving pick-up and drop-off systems, switching rail freight fuels is always a key part of Midlands Connect’s wider alternative fuels strategy. 

Think of the Midlands and transporting goods on water does not generally come to mind. But with a trend towards larger ferries shifting major UK freight paths from South-North to East-West over time, the Humber ports at Immingham and Grimsby in Lincolnshire come into play, as could smaller ports like Boston - excitingly, transporting goods via ferry has the potential to decarbonise transport even faster than rail.

By creating effective links for freight vehicles at the Lincolnshire ports and other UK gateways and building these into our proposed hydrogen refuelling network, we can help reduce transport emissions in our region from the beginning to the end of a complete freight journey, as well as supporting the burgeoning logistics industry which means so much to the Midlands.

It’s an extremely exciting time to be involved in the transport industry. By working in partnership with industry, consumers and other STBs, I’m confident the Midlands can lead the way on alternative fuels and support their roll-out UK wide.

Richard Bradley is head of strategy at Midlands Connect