THE heart of Scotland’s rail freight industry – which keeps hundreds of thousands of heavy loads off the roads every year – lies largely hidden from public gaze at hub railheads along the Mossend-Coatbridge-Grangemouth axis.
Here, at the north end of the West Coast Main Line – Britain’s busiest trunk route for freight – millions of tonnes of containerised freight are handled safely and sustainably every year, playing a vital part in servicing Scotland’s economy.
Maritime containers are shifted by rail from Coatbridge Freightliner Terminal, which – with its daily train services to Britain’s five principal deep sea ports (Felixstowe, Liverpool, Southampton, Thamesport and Tilbury) – has long been a key “inland port” for Scottish export containers. It was opened in 1968, as part of the nationwide development of the 75mph “liner train” system, recommended by the 1963 Beeching Report to help rail win back domestic general merchandise traffic in the face of growing road competition.
The Freightliner network is now focused on the deep sea sector, where rail is at its most competitive since there is only one additional change of mode (from road to rail at the inland terminal) compared to the throughout road haulage alternative. Scottish whisky exports are a key component of rail operations at Coatbridge.
Just south of Coatbridge is DB Schenker’s Mossend EuroTerminal, which was built with public funding in 1994 to serve the mainland European market. International rail freight has so far failed to live up to expectations, partly due to high charges for passage through the Channel Tunnel, but domestic intermodal (containerised) services convey supermarket supplies to Inverness and from the West Midlands of England. New cars are also brought here from the south by train, and with changes anticipated in the Tunnel charging regime, international rail freight is expected to be resurgent at Mossend in the future.
Big changes are also afoot just across the West Coast Main Line from the EuroTerminal. The growing PD Stirling facility at Mossend handles a wide variety of bulk and intermodal traffics (including cement distribution), and there are plans to develop new warehousing facilities convenient for rail – plus 775 metre-long sidings able to accommodate the longest Channel Tunnel freight trains.
While marshalling of individual wagons into trainloads is a very much reduced activity on the modern railway – with most freight trains running direct from A to B – interchange of traction from electric (over the West Coast Main Line) to diesel (over internal Scottish routes) is a key element of rail operations. Mossend Yard has a wide array of loop sidings to fulfill this role and also acts as a staging point for crew change-overs on the many bulk commodity trains – notably conveying coal to power stations – which represent the other central role of rail freight in Scotland’s economy.
The newest concentration of hub railheads in Central Scotland is in Grangemouth. Formerly a focus of much dock-related and oil refinery traffic, rail operations had declined substantially until in 1999 the Department for Transport and the then Scottish Executive awarded the logistics company TDG Nexus a £10 million Freight Facilities Grant (FFG) to build a new intermodal rail terminal south of the dock area. The following year a similar level of grant was awarded to BP Oil to upgrade rail handling facilities at their Grangemouth refinery and four distribution railheads across Scotland.
Subsequent FFG awards to the logistics companies WH Malcolm and Eddie Stobart – and to Asda Stores – helped the development of an intermodal railhead near the TDG facility. By the mid-2000s, Grangemouth had been transformed as a rail freight hub, and more than 5 million lorry miles a year had transferred from road to rail.
The Central Belt is well served by rail freight, but there is still scope for further terminal development – particularly if rail’s potential is to be fully realised.
One of Scotland’s biggest concentrations of retail regional distribution centres between Bathgate and Livingston, but currently there are no rail freight facilities in the area. However, by an accident of recent history, a fully rail-connected potential freight site sits unused at Boghall on the eastern outskirts of Bathgate – its intended use for handling new cars by rail having been overtaken by the company concerned switching its railhead activity to Mossend. A partnership between the rail industry and the logistics sector now has the opportunity to extend the economic, environmental and safety benefits of intermodal rail freight directly to the east of Scotland.
• David Spaven is Scottish representative of the Rail Freight Group www.rfg.org.uk