Infrastructure strategy gives some positive news for the rail freight sector - Maggie simpson

There is no shortage of strategic documents on infrastructure development published by Scottish Government. Alongside the Infrastructure Investment Plan which appeared in February sits the Capital Spending Review, and the National Transport Strategy with its associated Delivery Plan published last year. The National Planning Framework 4 is currently under development and Phase 1 of the second Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2) was published last month, with Phase 2 promised later this year.

Maggie Simpson, Director General, Rail Freight Group

Horribly confusing or horribly joined up? You can take your own view, there is certainly value in setting out intention to the market and outlining a framework and pipeline however multifaceted. By that metric, there does appear to be cohesion between the documents, and some positive news for the rail freight sector.

STPR2 is perhaps the most digestible version and includes a series of specific ‘interventions’ for delivery. Of those, three are important for rail freight.

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Firstly there are specific commitments on infrastructure to encourage rail freight. Although this is welcome, the promised work is relatively minor, allowing the Glasgow and South Western line to become a diversionary route to the West Coast Main Line for container trains. With weather related incidents increasing, having an alternative route is essential, so this will help reliability of current trains, even if it does little to make space for more. Further analysis of other routes is also promised although there is no promise of delivery.

There is also a renewed commitment to the rail decarbonisation programme. This is good news for rail freight, and Government’s commitment progressing electrification is hugely significant (not least in contrast to south of the border). There is however little clarity in the document on the specific plans over and above those already announced so there is more to do on confirming what the next projects will be.

Finally there are plans outlined for enhancing facilities at major stations. This may not seem as relevant to moving goods, but the text sets out a commitment to ensuring that appropriate provision for lightweight freight on passenger trains or converted passenger rolling stock can be handled on platforms. This raises an exciting potential for higher value and smaller consignments of freight, and in particular looks promising for moving parcels and online retail and for servicing smaller stores often found in and around stations.

Carrying freight on passenger trains is not new – the Caledonian Sleeper has been conveying shellfish for many years, and across the UK, logistics company InterCity Railfreight have been moving small parcels into London from the East Midlands and elsewhere for over a decade in collaboration with passenger train operators. They have recently expanded to use the CrossCountry Trains network bringing the opportunity to add stations in the Central Belt into their network.

For larger consignments, all eyes are on the recently announced service launch from Rail Operations UK who plan to start services between Birmingham and Mossend in April. This will use a repurposed passenger unit, which has been modified by rolling stock company Porterbrook to remove seats and equip the unit for handling roll cages full of supermarket products, parcels or indeed any other product that businesses need to move. Such units can operate into freight terminals and also into passenger stations where they are suitable. And that does not need much, simply enough time at the platform to unload, the ability to move a roll cage out to a waiting vehicle, and preferably a place to charge the electric vans that undertake the final mile to the customer.

It is really rewarding to see the private sector stepping up to invest in new products and services, and the alignment with Government policy, however numerous that might be, is instrumental in building confidence to invest in more.

Maggie Simpson OBE, Director General, Rail Freight Group

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