David Spaven: Why we must protect former railway routes

Rail's great strength is its ability to move large quantities of freight safely, swiftly and sustainably: the end product of low-friction, steel-wheel-on-steel-rail technology, operating over a segregated route network. But that segregation inevitably means that rail is less ubiquitous than its road haulage competitor, with public roads serving virtually every site across Scotland which generates freight traffic.

david spaven  friends of the scotsman 25/06/13 scottish representative rail freight group
david spaven friends of the scotsman 25/06/13 scottish representative rail freight group

In contrast, at present, only a handful of mining / manufacturing / processing sites in Scotland are directly rail-connected – good examples being open-cast coal mines, Hunterston port, the cement works at Dunbar, the Dalzell steel plant, the oil refinery at Grangemouth and the Fort William aluminium smelter. But the coal industry – which traditionally supplied the key freight traffic on the railways – is in substantial decline, and the rail industry urgently needs to find new business.

In practice, much of the traffic potential to help fill the gap left by coal will lie in the domestic intermodal sector, where containers are trunked by rail over the long haul, but typically need collection and delivery by road.

However, eliminating a lorry leg at the start or end of the rail transit can help to transform rail economics and win more traffic back from long-distance road haulage. 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 for rail.

The Scottish Government’s rail freight strategy, Delivering the Goods, published in 2016, acknowledged the scope for considering how “[Local] development plans [LDPs] could be further improved to identify key opportunities and optimise investment potential in rail freight.” In practice, LDPs are much influenced by the Scottish Government’s guidance in its national planning policies: these featuring strongly in both the initial creation of the LDPs and in any subsequent planning appeals.

Back in the 1990s, guidance on rail freight was strong and specific, requiring planning authorities to identify sites adjacent to existing operational or disused infrastructure which were capable of being developed for uses requiring rail or water-borne freight access, and to safeguard these, through the LDPs, for manufacturing, processing or trans-shipment developments with potential to use rail or water freight.

Today, however, the guidance is weaker and does not mention rail freight specifically, stating little more than: “Disused railway lines with a reasonable prospect of being reused as rail, tram, bus rapid transit or active travel routes should be safeguarded in development plans.”

Within the railway estate, 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, which is 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.

In its recent submission to the Scottish Government consultation on the planning system, RFG responded that: The Scottish Government should develop specific planning guidance to safeguard (a) potential rail freight terminals and (b) potential rail links to nearby manufacturing / mining / processing sites from inappropriate development. Local Development Plans should be required to ensure that strategic / regional rail freight prospects are taken into consideration when zoning land at and around existing / potential rail freight terminals.

Campaigning groups have also raised these issues. In its response to the 2017 consultation on Scotland’s Rail Infrastructure Strategy, the sustainable transport alliance, Transform Scotland, commented: “A comprehensive study should be undertaken of all former rail routes to establish the condition and opportunity for re-use for passenger or freight needs. Until this is completed, all former rail routes should be protected.”

The rail network can never penetrate as far as lorries can go. But a strategic approach – by government and the rail industry – to protection of land adjacent to railway routes will help to ensure opportunities to switch freight from truck to train are maximised.

And that will benefit everyone: through reduced road congestion, improved road safety, better air quality and lower carbon dioxide emissions.

David Spaven, Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group