Rail can do the heavy lifting if fully funded

PINCH points in network must be resolved, says David Spaven

The freight rail transport industry has "untapped potential". Picture: Kenny Smith
The freight rail transport industry has "untapped potential". Picture: Kenny Smith

The current inquiry into Freight Transport in Scotland by the Scottish Parliament’s infrastructure and capital investment committee has provided a welcome opportunity to restate the strategic case for shifting freight from road to rail.

As the Rail Freight Group argued in its evidence: rail provides a reliable and resilient mode of transport, with a strong role in key, domestic and deep sea intermodal, markets serving Scotland:

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It also has largely untapped potential to serve mainland European intermodal markets – including export and import traffic through the Channel Tunnel.

Rail freight’s technical characteristics – steel wheel on steel rail, a guided track and a segregated and signalled right of way – allow low “line-haul” costs for long distances and/or big volumes. A single bulk train can haul a payload of up to 1,500 tonnes, while a container train can convey 72, 20ft equivalent units – generally less than a ship, but the equivalent of around 50 HGVs. Rail is much faster and more reliable than shipping and is not vulnerable to sea weather conditions, nor to growing congestion at major continental ports such as Rotterdam.

Rail cannot be as ubiquitous as road haulage, but for big-volume and/or long-haul flows it can offer significant commercial, economic, energy, environmental and safety advantages – and being land-based, can generally penetrate much closer to final destinations than shipping, thereby reducing damaging road miles.

Rail’s ability to compete against road and sea depends on a number of factors, including the availability of suitable route and terminal infrastructure (partly determined by government investment) and whether the terms of competition with other modes are fair, with regard to a variety of relevant government policies. For example, while road hauliers benefit from the ubiquity of dual-lane trunk roads, there are significant infrastructure capacity pinch points on Scotland’s internal rail network, notably:

• A lack of long overtaking loops – and remaining single-track sections at Perth and Montrose/Usan – on the trunk route to Aberdeen from the Central Scotland rail hubs at Coatbridge, Grangemouth and Mossend;

• Inadequate quantum and length of crossing loops on the largely single-track Perth-Inverness railway, restricting freight trains to just 20 containers instead of the 28 containers which could otherwise be hauled;

• Inadequate quantum and length of crossing loops on the single-track Aberdeen-Inverness railway;

• Inadequate length of crossing loops, and speed-restricted structures, on the single-track West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William.

By contrast to the widespread provision of generous structure height clearances for trucks on the Scottish trunk road network, the rail system is a patchwork of varying capability to handle the modern generation of tall containers.

The Anglo-Scottish routes to the rest of Britain, to mainland Europe (via the Channel Tunnel) and worldwide (via deep sea ports in England) should be further enhanced. Full loading gauge clearance will be extended up the East Coast Main Line to Central Scotland next year, but similar treatment is needed to maximise intermodal freight potential on the West Coast Main Line. Other key enhancements needed are:

• Provision of sufficient long loops (of up to 775m length) to allow 125mph passenger trains to overtake 75mph freight trains on the East Coast and West Coast Main Lines;

• A simple redesign of the layout – to include the replacement of 1960s vintage road-rail transfer cranes – at Coatbridge Freightliner Terminal, serving as Scotland’s “inland port” and a domestic hub for cross-border traffic.

The Scottish Government also needs to consider how it can restructure and more widely promote its Freight Facilities Grant and Mode Shift Revenue Support schemes – which are based on the environmental benefits of mode switch from road to rail. With the right kind of support, the rail freight industry is ready to play its part in providing a resilient and environmentally-friendly alternative to road haulage in every one of Scotland’s mainland regions.

• David Spaven is Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group. rfg.org.uk