Major UK rail freight operator looks to pick up speed in Scotland

The firm drives and operates the Caledonian Sleeper. Picture: Iain McLean.
The firm drives and operates the Caledonian Sleeper. Picture: Iain McLean.
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The boss of a major UK rail freight operator – which drives and operates the Caledonian Sleeper – has stressed that it is “very keen” to grow its traffic in Scotland.

John Smith is the chief executive of GB Railfreight, which he founded in 1999. It now has about 900 staff and turns over roughly £200 million, with Scotland contributing about a tenth of this, he told Scotland on Sunday.

He explained that its activities reach beyond the Channel Tunnel to Europe and as far north as Inverness, with activities north of the Border including transporting alumina – used for the smelting of aluminium metal – to Fort William and moving infrastructure material for Network Rail.

It is also looking at the movements of timber around the Rannoch area, for example, while there is a decent amount of rail freight traffic between Glasgow and the Midlands.

Smith, who has worked on the railways for more than four decades, also cited a desire to revive rail freight in Scotland, saying it is well-suited to transporting, say, water or whisky as the distance and quantities involved make it efficient.

One firm to be investing in rail freight is water firm Highland Spring, next to its main bottling plant in Blackford, Perthshire.

GB Railfreight also encompasses the “glamorous” end in Scotland, having the locomotives and drivers that operate the Royal Scotsman.

Overall, Smith would like to see the market grow “and that very much includes Scotland,” with the right government support. “We continue to grow, we’re investing capital, we’ve just invested about £50 million in some new wagons."

As for the Caledonian Sleeper service, “we’re seeing more reliable delivery of the service”. It was reported earlier this month that passenger complaints about the Sleeper saw a 221 per cent year-on-year jump between July and September following the troubled introduction of its £150m new fleet. "We had to go through a transition, I think it was always going to be difficult but we're really seeing light at the end of the tunnel," he added, citing higher passenger numbers.