A report from the Northern Way said ports in the north now take more than 34 per cent of the UK's freight container traffic compared with 30 per cent ten years ago.
Currently only the West Coast Main Line is capable of carrying the latest high cube containers, it said. But by 2030 some 60 trains a day will be needed to and from the north's ports across the Pennines, it added.
Northern Way transport compact chairman David Begg said the Department for Transport's estimates do not account for growth in container traffic. "We are working with Network Rail to develop the detailed business case on a route-by-route basis to make this happen," he said.
The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) also wants more freight to be carried by rail but its report insisted that some road building is still be needed to tackle congestion.
The Northern Way and IPPR reports are available at PlanningResource.co.uk/doc.