Rail currently accounts for a "significantly lower than envisaged" share of freight imports to the UK, and there is spare capacity through the Channel Tunnel for businesses that import goods from Europe, according to a new report (58-page / 4.1MB PDF) commissioned by the Rail Delivery Group, which represents the UK's passenger and freight rail companies as well as Network Rail.
The report recommends that the government legislate for the creation of a network of new railway customs areas (RCAs) across the UK, which would offer similar customs facilities as ports and airports in the maritime and aviation sectors respectively. Provisions in the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Bill ('Customs Bill'), which is currently before the UK parliament, would, if passed, allow for the creation of RCAs.
There is currently no need for customs facilities where goods enter the UK from the EU by rail via the Channel Tunnel, although there is a site at each side of the tunnel for safety and security inspections. The rail industry is concerned that converting only the inspection site at the UK end of the Channel Tunnel, at Dollands Moor in Kent, to a customs facility has the potential to create significant congestion and delays, causing disruption to trade and to business supply chains.
Instead, the report recommends adopting an 'inspection at final terminal' strategy by way of a network of RCAs, so that imports can be sent to their final destination without being held up on entry to the UK. For example, car assembly parts are currently moved by rail to terminals in Daventry in the Midlands and Ditton in the North West, while bottled water from France is imported to Daventry. These RCAs could be part-funded by the government, and part-funded by the private sector and industry, according to the report.
Over 2,000 trains transported 1.22 million tonnes of freight during 2017, excluding containers which were originally imported by ship, according to the Rail Delivery Group. International rail freight to the UK increased by 23% in the first three months of 2018, to 100 million tonne kilometres.
"As we leave the European Union, the rail industry is united in wanting to secure imports through the Channel Tunnel and provide new opportunities for British businesses," said Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group.
"Our proposals to create customs facilities at freight terminals support and complement the work ongoing in government for customs controls post-Brexit and will prevent unnecessary congestion on the railway and clear the way for smooth trade with our partners in Europe," he said.
The precise nature of future customs arrangements at the UK-EU border will depend on the outcome of the withdrawal negotiations. For this reason, the Customs Bill is designed to allow the government to implement the outcome of these negotiations in a flexible way, by way of secondary legislation.
Last month, the UK government outlined its plans for a new 'facilitated customs arrangement' between the UK and EU, with no need for customs checks and controls but which would still allow the UK to control its own tariffs for trade with the rest of the world. However Michel Barnier, the EU27's chief negotiator, has said that the EU will not accept these proposals.