Much to do to help rail freight carry its weight on low carbon travel - Maggie Simpson

Transport may not have been the most debated topic in the parliamentary election period, but it remains a key priority for the incoming Government. With COP26 approaching, politicians need to demonstrate serious commitment to low carbon travel and be prepared to take bold decisions if Scotland stands any chance of reaching net zero by 2045.

Maggie Simpson, Director General, Rail Freight Group

Rail freight is an important element of plans to decarbonise transport, so what should Government’s priorities be to support growth?

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Truth be told, the established policy framework around rail freight has been working well, and Scotland’s Railway have brought a real focus to growth. Transport Scotland have been bullish in their support including support for trials of new services and facilities. The challenge will be to maintain this interest as the passenger franchise is brought back in house, bringing an ever closer relationship between Ministers and day to day operations. Support for freight should not be a casualty of this change.

Wires not Words

Decarbonisation of transport requires action from all modes, so we have welcomed Government commitment to a rolling programme of rail electrification. Just under half of all rail freight in Scotland is already hauled by electric trains, but there is more that can be achieved with increased investment in overhead wires on the core routes. With ever tighter fiscal pressures, there is a danger that the necessary investment may not be forthcoming. Government must hold firm to its commitment and authorise work to start on the next route, and then the next, and the next. Certainty of these investment plans is also essential to support private sector investment in new locomotives and handling equipment in terminals.

Cross Border Co-operation

Whatever any future border might look like, the Scottish economy will continue to rely on exports. In 2018, total exports from Scotland were valued at £85bn, with 60 per cent going to the rest of the UK and the remainder overseas. So highly efficient trade links to get goods to market are an imperative. Today a significant proportion of Scottish rail freight is cross border, and there are strong opportunities for growth too, if the rail network is fit for purpose. Yet we know already of capacity constraints on both West and East Coast routes, and Westminster plans for decarbonisation are behind those in Scotland, leaving key routes with insufficient power for cross border freight. Co-operation will be critical to deliver joint solutions allowing more trains to run and supporting exporters and indeed importers across the nation.

To Greenport or Not?

Scotland’s sea ports are also vital as export routes, and there is increased opportunity to make increase rail freight to and from ports. With an announcement from London on freeport locations in England, there is concern that without an equivalent policy framework there could be competitive issues arising. Government needs to work to resolve a policy on such locations in Scotland, and in particular how they can support rail freight in so doing.

The new Government inherits a strong position on its support for rail freight, but there is much to do to help the sector play its full role in decarbonising the transport of goods.

Maggie Simpson, Director General, Rail Freight Group

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