A number of UK rail companies have proposed a plan to make sure freight deliveries won’t be penalised in the case that a hard Brexit leads to a no-deal on customs arrangements.

In the past few months, the UK Government has been struggling to reach an agreement on customs measures once the country leaves the European Union (EU). This has sparked fears among unions, as the lack of a customs deal would mean that trains, 2,000 of which delivered 1.22 million tonnes of freight in 2017, could end up in extensive queues on either side of the Channel Tunnel.

Rail freight contributes £1.7bn to the UK every year, particularly in the north west of England, in areas including Yorkshire and the Midlands. In the first three months of 2018, international rail freight across the Channel increased to 100 million tonne kilometres, a rise of 23% compared to the same period last year.

Rail Freight Group executive director Maggie Simpson said: “Moving freight by rail is good for the environment, reduces road congestion and is safer than by road. We’re committed to growing rail freight through the Channel for the long-term.”

However, although customs declarations on rail freight inside the EU are not currently required, the situation will change after Brexit effectively takes place in Match 2019.

A host of rail companies led by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) has therefore proposed to create a series of Railway Customs Areas (RCAs) that would provide a single border checkpoint and reduce the chances of trains being clogged up in France and Kent.

The move comes following a survey by the British Chambers of Commerce and the Port of Dover, which showed that 29% of businesses believe they would be affected by the impact of delays at ports, with one in three companies claiming to be unprepared for new customs arrangements.

The issue was further highlighted in May by HM Revenue & Customs, which warned that the number of customs declarations would increase four-fold as a consequence of the proposed ‘max-fac’, or ‘maximum facilitation’, border arrangement, which aims to use new technology to avoid border delays. According to RDG, the RCAs would help reduce the mac-fac’s impact by simplifying checks.

RDG chief executive Paul Plummer said: “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.”