Drive needed to shift from road to rail

The solutions to our freight problems lie in cooperation and careful use of existing resources – but the need is urgent, says Russell Imrie

Numerous projects are under way to improve Scotlands use of sea and rail freight. Picture: Stephen Mansfield

As a trading nation Scotland needs cheap, fast and effective freight opportunities to get our goods to market.

Much has been achieved to improve the efficiency of Scottish freight transportation, but a lot remains to be done. SEStran is currently involved in two major EU-funded projects: Lo Pinod and Weastflows, which seek to improve Scotland’s use of sea and rail freight and maximise sustainability.

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Lo Pinod aims to develop a more sustainable and efficient alternative to existing freight flow practices. Working in partnership with stakeholders across the UK and Europe, the project is identifying ways to improve short sea shipping routes, local port facilities and their inland connections, and to encourage a wider use of water and rail transport across the North Sea region, as well as sharing best practice and improving accessibility to freight in more isolated areas.

Weastflows (West and East flows) is dedicated to improving and enhancing freight logistics in North West Europe, finding ways to improve freight flows and encouraging more sustainable freight transport methods and a move away from over-reliance on road haulage to rail, short sea shipping and river transportation.

SEStran has conducted several studies, seeking to identify problem areas in freight movement, and potential improvements. Our freight flows study shows that Scottish freight is overdependent upon road transportation. In South East Scotland, about 50 per cent of loads travel by road, while the rest use a range of rail and water-based alternatives. Remove oil from the equation and almost two-thirds of freight goes by road. Alternative modes must be better utilised and road transportation itself needs to be improved. Too often vehicles carry only partial loads and often return to base empty. Stakeholders need to coordinate the movements of the road fleet, so that such partial loads and empty running vehicles become a thing of the past.

This will cut transportation costs, while removing wasteful empty vehicles from our roads. The amount of freight shifted by rail – the most sustainable form of land transportation – also needs to rise. The work done in Weastflows to develop an intermodal route planner, enabling the full range of options to be identified for a particular load, will go a long way to improving the situation.

Our analysis of the repositioning of empty shipping containers reveals a shortage of containers in Scotland. Unlike the rest of the UK, Scotland is a net exporter, and this container deficit represents a major problem. As a result, Scottish shippers must currently pay for shipping lines to bring empty containers across the North Sea. Ways must be found to ensure that containers are available in the quantities required, where and when they are needed. Stakeholders must work together to ensure that they are used to the maximum, coordinate and share loads, and make use of innovations such as collapsible containers that are more easily moved around and half-sized “tworky” boxes that can be linked together to create a full sized 40ft container.

Stakeholders also need to make better use of existing shipping resources, like the Rosyth to Zeebrugge ro-ro freight ferry service, Scotland’s only direct freight ferry link to mainland Europe. Bulk shipping, which applies to goods not suitable for containerisation like oil, aggregates and timber, poses different problems. The size of the vessels used varies considerably, with those carrying oil and gas tending to be exceptionally large. Not all Scottish ports are suitable for these larger vessels and, unlike other freight, bulk cargo is tied much more to the economy of each region, being based on exporting specific resources like aggregates, or importing specific items for local businesses, such as coal or barley. For smaller ports, the main opportunities to encourage more marine freight lie in areas like waste, biomass, timber and agricultural products.

The solution to all of these problems lies mainly in cooperation and careful use of existing resources – and the need is urgent. As the EU sulphur directive comes into force in 2015, inevitably raising the costs of freight ferry services across the North Sea by potentially significant amounts, making every load count will become an increasing priority. Optimum use of resources and cooperative working will reduce overheads and ensure that increased costs don’t price Scottish exports out of the market. This includes maximising use of the sole European ferry service available. Failure to do so will put more pressure on this service, with freight potentially having to travel long distances by road or rail to ports in other parts of the UK.

Our studies show that solutions to the problems the Scottish freight industry faces can be found through creative use of resources, careful planning and cooperative working, as advocated by Lo Pinod and Weastflows. Difficult times lie ahead, but if stakeholders pull together they can weather the storm.

• Cllr Russell Imrie is Chair of SEStran. To find out more about Weastflows or Lo Pinod, visit or