Increase in rail freight may become familiar feature - Phil Smart

New year is always a time to celebrate and to look forward. Hopefully we will get on top of the latest manifestation of the Covid pandemic and can contemplate more stable times ahead.

Phil Smart, Assistant Policy Manager, Rail Freight Group

If, despite it all, you enjoyed Christmas, you may have had the railway to thank! The challenges of the lorry driver shortage saw many new freight services on rail. Perhaps the most noteworthy is the new twice daily trains to Coatbridge from Tilbury for supermarket giant Tesco. What is cool (literally) about this new service is its use of refrigerated containers (known as ‘Reefers’) to enable chilled goods to be transported over the 415-mile route, something of an innovation for rail. Operating seven days a week and using bi-mode (electric and diesel) locomotives, it will take 17,000 containers off our roads over the course of a year saving 7.3 million road miles and nearly 9,000 tons of CO2e. Tesco hope to bring even more business to rail as part of their commitment to ‘net zero’ emissions by 2035.

2022 will also witness the regular ‘Express Freight’ service by the Rail Operations Group. We anticipated this last year, but the operators are confident this will soon be a familiar feature of the Anglo-Scottish freight scene.

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Soon too, will be the new trains of bottled water running from the Highland Spring terminal at Blackford, in partnership with the Russell Group. This alone saves 3,200t of CO2 and will remove 8,000 lorry movements a year from the local village.

Hopefully these will be joined in 2022 by new flows of timber traffic. Following successful trials in 2020, an announcement from Transport Scotland is eagerly anticipated.

As well as Christmas and New year, we all like an excuse to celebrate birthdays and anniversaries and some important ones are due this year. Besides the Royal Jubilee, the rail freight industry has its own anniversaries. In May 1822, a group of merchants and industrialists attended a ceremony to witness the laying of the first length of rail on the Stockton and Darlington Railway which opened in 1825.

They probably had little idea of its significance, but what they were laying down was the very foundation of the global economy and today we can look back over two centuries of investment in the freight railway and marvel at its achievements. Although this was the first commercial railway to use mechanical propulsion in the form of steam engines, many pioneering railways had been used before, using gravity and horses.

The first example in Scotland was in East Lothian, where track made of wooden rails was laid over a length of 2.5 miles between Tranent and Cockenzie. Wooden wagons carried coal from the mine at Tranent to the coast, where it was then used to make salt by evaporating salt water. It was opened in 1722, and thus Scotland can celebrate 300 years of moving freight by rail. We are familiar with service disruptions, but the temporary suspension of this line in 1745 must be unique in railway history, as the land it crossed was used as a battlefield in the ’45 rebellion! Today it is a public footpath.

Phil Smart, Assistant Policy Manager, Rail Freight Group

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