David Spaven: The road to fewer emissions is freight by rail – but proper planning is needed

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Despite the historical ­contraction of heavy industry, Scotland still has significant manufacturing and processing sites spread across the country – from the Norboard panel mill at Dalcross in the north to the Steven’s Croft forest industry complex at Lockerbie in the south.

Inevitably these sites generate large demands for freight ­movement. Some locations – such as the cement works at Dunbar, the Dalzell steel plant, the oil refinery at Grangemouth and the Fort William aluminium smelter – benefit from direct rail connection, offering a resilient and sustainable alternative to 100 per cent dependence on road haulage. But many have lost – or never had – their own rail sidings.

However, government policy from local authorities to the European Union backs ‘modal switch’ from road to rail, with associated economic, environmental and climate change benefits. While much of rail freight’s potential lies in the domestic intermodal sector – where containers are trunked by rail over the long haul, but typically need ­collection and delivery by road – eliminating a lorry leg at the start or end can help to transform rail economics and win more traffic back from the roads.

Protecting the possibility of ­gaining or regaining direct rail access to major industrial sites should therefore be at the heart of a long-term strategy. The rail industry can and does take its own steps to protect land from inappropriate development. Since privatisation, there has been a designated list of strategic freight sites (sites where there are no ­current rail freight ­activities but which are deemed to have freight potential) which benefit from strategic protection.

This list, currently being updated by Network Rail, includes sites at key locations like Inverness, Keith and Mossend, where new or expanded rail terminals could ­handle freight traffic switched from the roads.

But the rail industry has no ­control over non-railway land containing existing industrial locations or potential development sites. This is where government – both local and central – has the key role to play in protecting land adjacent or close to the rail network.

Scottish planning policy (published by the Scottish Government in 2014) does provide important guidance on protecting potential rail sites, including: “Where appropriate, development plans should . . . identify suitable locations for new or expanded rail freight interchanges to ­support increased movement of freight by rail. Facilities allowing the transfer of freight from road to rail or water should also be considered.”

This is sensible, but, unlike ­Scottish planning guidance in the 1990s, makes no reference to safeguarding of such sites. The latter is one of a number of issues where the rail freight industry, led by the Rail Freight Group, is drafting ideas for enhanced planning guidance.

Scottish planning policy also addresses the integration of different transport modes, for example at ports: ‘Planning authorities and port operators should work together to address the planning and transport needs of ports and opportunities for rail access should be safeguarded in development plans.’

Major existing ports value their rail connections – for example at Aberdeen and Grangemouth – but it is important that new port developments, such as at Nigg Bay in Aberdeen, should protect the possibility of future access to rail. This could mean a direct rail branch line or a private ‘haul road’ leading to a convenient freight railhead – but the common principle is to protect a ­strategic local corridor. Too many potential rail freight sites or corridors have been lost to inappropriate development.

A related issue is the need to ­consider rail freight prospects and potential future ‘near neighbour’ problems when local authorities reach decisions on, for example, whether or not to zone land for housing where it surrounds or lies adjacent to existing or mothballed rail freight facilities or routes. A long-term view is essential to avoid unnecessary future conflicts.

The rail network can never penetrate as far as lorries can go. But in key sectors such as aggregates, ­forest products and bulk whisky, a strategic approach to protection of land adjacent to railway routes will help to ensure that opportunities to switch freight from truck to train are maximised. That will benefit everyone through reduced road congestion, improved road safety, better air quality and lower emissions.

David Spaven, Scottish representative, Rail Freight Group.