David Spaven: That’s the spirit – rail plans could whisk loads of Scotch off busy roads

David Spaven, Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group
David Spaven, Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group
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The recent Scottish ­Government go-ahead for detailed design work on a reinstated passenger train service to ­Levenmouth was welcome news for a neglected corner of Scotland.

Unlike the other Scottish rail ­reopenings of recent times – Airdrie to Bathgate, and the Borders Railway – this scheme also has a potentially strategic freight dimension, unlocking a wide range of economic, ­environmental and social benefits.

The largest grain distillery in Europe, at Cameron Bridge, has its own rail sidings connecting with the mothballed Levenmouth line – opening up prospects for movements of bulk spirit and wheat to be shifted from truck to train.

It is less than two miles by road from Cameron Bridge to the major bottling plant at Leven – creating the opportunity for up to two trainloads a day conveying finished product to Grangemouth, for onward rail and sea connections to domestic, deep sea and European markets. Accommodating freight in the Levenmouth scheme will not happen automatically however – additional signalling and track works will be ­necessary to create a container railhead at ­Cameron Bridge.

Given the ‘climate emergency’ announced by the First Minister earlier this year, it is therefore vital that the Scottish Government works closely with whisky giant Diageo, logistics companies and the rail industry to ensure that the freight potential of the Levenmouth line is fully realised. Sending freight by train cuts CO2 emissions by up to 76 per cent compared to road haulage, even where road collection and delivery legs are required at either end of the rail trunk haul. Switching freight from road to rail can offer a ‘quick win’, as it involves doing the same for less carbon, rather than having to doing things completely differently (as is often the climate change ­prescription in other sectors).

A Cameron Bridge ­railhead would be a key building block for the whisky industry to ­diversify its transport options within Scotland. While rail has long moved finished product south to export ­markets from hub container ­railheads at Coatbridge, Grangemouth and Mossend, heavy lorries convey the entire annual ­output of nearly 1.5m tonnes of bulk spirit from north of Scotland distilleries to ­maturation sites and blending plants in central Scotland.

Complete dependence on road haulage has a number of down sides, not just in terms of climate change, in particular the severe damage to road surfaces, and lorries’ disproportionate involvement in fatal accidents.

There are special concerns along the single-carriageway A95 through Speyside, where half of all HGV movements are whisky-related, and on the A9 to the south, which sees around 50,000 long-distance ­whisky vehicle trips annually.

Yet an integrated road-rail option is perfectly feasible, with convenient mothballed ­railheads located at Elgin and Keith. The Scottish Government’s 2017 rail freight strategy took an upbeat line which should encourage prospects for whisky by train: “We will ­galvanise efforts to overcome the technical, cultural and regulatory challenges towards a ‘can do’ approach, with the needs of rail freight customers at its heart.

“We will invest, along with the industry, in the whole system ­solutions and innovations which can meet the demands of the ­modern market, for the benefit of Scotland’s economy, its environment and its communities.”

In central Scotland – with financial ‘pump-priming’ of new services by the Scottish ­Government – rail is well-placed to make a breakthrough at key spirits destinations, which could be served by a service linking ­Speyside, maturation and bottling plants, and the railheads at ­Coatbridge, Grangemouth and ­Mossend.

At Cambus/Blackgrange, the ­largest bonded warehouse site in Europe lies adjacent to the Stirling-Alloa railway, while the massive Shieldhall bottling plant in south west Glasgow is less than a mile by road from a mothballed freight railhead at Deanside.

Major maturation complexes in Dumbarton, Drumchapel and ­Dalmuir are on average only a dozen miles by lorry from Deanside or an alternative railhead at Elderslie. Outwith the Central Belt, large grain distilleries sit adjacent to railways at Girvan and Invergordon, with potential opportunities to transport wheat, as well as ­spirit, by train.

The new Levenmouth line can therefore be a giant stepping stone to a sustainable future for transporting raw materials and output of the spirits industry across Scotland. We must not waste this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

David Spaven, Scottish representative, Rail Freight Group.