Rail freight must step up its development

New markets must be found for rail freight to continue its valuable contribution, writes David Spaven

Transport Minister Derek Mackay rightly said, in his introduction to the Scottish Government’s recent Delivering the Goods strategy, that ‘time is of the essence for the Scottish rail freight industry’. The rapid decline in the traditional coal market, including the loss of traffic to Longannet power station, closed in March, means that rail freight has to step up its development of new markets if it is to continue to make an important contribution to Scotland’s economy and environment.

There have been plenty of good news stories in recent decades – notably rail’s growing role in the long-haul transport of supermarket supplies from the Midlands of England to Central Scotland and onwards to Aberdeen and Inverness. A major step forward is now anticipated in the bottled water sector, with Highland Spring recently securing planning permission for a bespoke rail terminal beside its Blackford plant – enabling scores of lorry movements daily to switch to rail.

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But much more needs to be done, with the industry working in partnership with government and customers to deliver in sectors such as aggregates, timber and movement of bulk whisky within Scotland.

Amongst the key tasks will be to identify and formalise ‘the Scottish strategic freight network’. While the trunk road network was long ago rebuilt to allow ubiquitous passage of the biggest lorries, the rail network is still a patchwork of different capabilities of handling long, fast trains conveying the modern generation of tall containers. The industry can argue that it has one arm tied behind its back until government funds major infrastructure changes to help level the playing field with road haulage.

The top priorities for a Strategic Rail Freight Network are not hard to identify: the key Anglo-Scottish West Coast Main Line (in particular) and East Coast Main Line need the full capability and capacity to accommodate 775m-long intermodal trains carrying industry-standard 9’6” high containers. Infrastructure works will be required to ensure that complete diversionary capability is available at times of disruption, such as the recent Lamington bridge closure on the West Coast Main Line, caused by extreme weather.

A second supporting tier of strategic provision is likely to involve the key internal Scottish routes from hub railheads such as Coatbridge, Mossend and Grangemouth to Aberdeen and Inverness. In these cases, strategic upgrading will probably comprise a mix of infrastructure works and ‘wagon solutions’ – specialist lower-height wagons can allow the tallest containers to be carried by rail with relatively modest levels of capital investment.

On some sections of route, however, significant infrastructure is unavoidable. It is astonishing that, in this day and age, two thirds of the Perth-Inverness ‘Highland Main Line’ (HML) remains single-track. The £3bn dualling of the A9 is pushing ahead, but in contrast, even the specification for the piecemeal upgrading of the HML remains uncertain – other than that investment (for both freight and passenger markets) is capped at just £600m. That is not fair competition.

A significant minority of the 1,700 route miles of the Scottish rail network – notably suburban lines in and around Glasgow – is never likely to see freight traffic. But it is important that we do not close off the possibilities on longer-distance rural routes by downgrading their capability for heavy freight wagons.

A third ‘feeder/potential’ tier of strategic designation is therefore needed for Scotland’s strategic rail freight network if all significant market prospects are to be encouraged. Perhaps the most obvious inclusions are the Far North Line to Caithness (currently carrying oil, steel pipes and nuclear waste) and the West Highland Line to Fort William (oil, and alumina for Britain’s last aluminium smelter). But if timber by rail takes off, then the routes to Kyle, Mallaig, Oban and Stranraer could also play a key role in delivering economic and environmental benefits.

It is this kind of strategic approach which will help to ensure that rail freight fulfils its potential as a safe and sustainable mode at the heart of Scotland’s transport future.

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• David Spaven, Scottish representative, Rail Freight Group www.rfg.org.uk