In 2008, the Scottish Government’s Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR) identified upgrading the largely single-track Highland Main Line (HML) as the third-top priority among 29 road and rail schemes across Scotland.
Investment of between £200 million and £450m was envisaged, including ‘additional loops, dynamic loops or lengthening of double track sections‘ – designed to benefit both passenger and freight traffic.
Targeted infrastructure enhancements for HML freight traffic in the STPR document included provision of bi-directional signalling to reduce the impact of engineering works on the route (permitting it to remain open for freight throughout the day and week), increased length of freight loops (allowing longer trains), and removal of speed limits on various bridges below the 75 mph line speed.
The outcome would be that ‘the freight improvements would make it considerably more attractive for freight hauliers to move containers and other goods by rail, by reducing journey times’.
So where does rail freight stand, ten years on? Work will soon be completed on a drastically scaled-down infrastructure programme, with just £57m invested in track and signalling upgrades of the Aviemore and Pitlochry crossing loops. The benefit will go almost entirely to passenger trains, since the capacity of these enhanced loops will be taken up for most of the day by a new hourly frequency of train service between Perth and Inverness.
Rail freight needs long, high-capacity trains to compete effectively with road haulage, but current works on the HML will do little or nothing to help.
Class 66 locomotives which haul the daily Stobart/Tesco container train from Central Scotland to Inverness can pull 28 containers – the equivalent of 28 lorries – but the lack of long crossing loops restricts the operation to just 20. The crossing loop being extended at Aviemore was already the longest on the line, and at Pitlochry – the shortest loop on the line – there is to be no extension, so HML freight train lengths will remain significantly constrained.
It is frustrating for rail hauliers that each train could carry up to 40 per cent more goods, yet this opportunity is blocked by Scottish Government funding parsimony.
In the meantime, A9 dualling is progressing steadily – part of a £3bn project – and there is a real danger that the absence of a level playing field for investment will lead to a switch of freight from rail to road, the opposite of Government policy.
In recent years, a regular trainload of oil from Grangemouth to Lairg, north of Inverness, has been lost to road haulage. And a Scottish national newspaper revealed last year that an expert report commissioned by the Scottish Government – which Ministers did not intend to publish – concluded that 80 more lorries a day would travel the A9 in each direction by 2025, but rail freight’s share of the market would drop by a tenth.
In contrast, a sensible investment policy for HML capacity would lengthen key loops, construct new loops on the longest single-track sections and remove punitive speed restrictions on three bridges.
Amongst traffic which could then transfer from the A9 – improving road safety, cutting CO2 and reducing the road maintenance burden – are more supermarket supplies, timber and forest products, and bulk spirit from Speyside to Central Scotland maturation plants. The line’s ability to handle the modern generation of tall and wide containers also needs to be addressed. Upgrading work on tunnels and overbridges and provision of a dedicated fleet of low-platform container wagons would allow rail to compete for chilled and frozen produce (which needs wider refrigerated containers) moving between the Central Belt and the north.
In its admirable 2017 High Level Ouput Specification for the 2019-24 period, Scottish Ministers ‘require all reasonable steps to be taken to facilitate growth of 7.5 per cent in rail freight traffic carried on the Scotland route, of which, at least 7.5 per cent will represent a growth in new business (i.e. new traffic flows, not previously moving by rail)’.
Achieving that growth on the ground – and avoiding loss of existing freight traffic from rail to road – will be the real test of policy.
Along the Highland Main Line in particular, the rail freight industry needs serious infrastructure investment so that it can deliver the significant economic and environmental prizes which freight on rail offers.
David Spaven, Scottish representative, Rail Freight Group.