Sea change ahead bodes well for trains

Government should treat the two fairly, says David Spaven

Our economy is much more dependent on export business than our southern neighbours. Picture: Getty

Freight transport is critical to Scotland’s economy, and while road haulage is the most obvious manifestation, the key roles of rail and sea can easily be overlooked – because their crucial work is largely done “out of sight, out of mind”. Our economy is much more dependent on export business than our southern neighbours, and ships and trains – the most environmentally friendly modes of freight transport – are a vital part of those supply chains to worldwide markets.

Rail and sea have long worked together, and today that cross-modal collaboration remains at the heart of key sectors of the Scottish economy. Coal imported through the port of Hunterston is transferred by conveyor for loading into trains bearing 1,500 tonnes payload each, heading for Longannet power station and generators south of the Border. One of the outstandingly positive legacies of the otherwise infamous Beeching Report of 1963 has been the national network of Freightliner container trains – using rail for the trunk haul and road for local collection and delivery – and today’s inheritance in Scotland is daily train departures from Coatbridge Freightliner Terminal to Britain’s “big five” Deep Sea ports at Felixstowe, Liverpool, Southampton, Thames Gateway and Tilbury.

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Where high-quality service and reliability are the priority, Scottish exporters to Deep Sea markets (not least the whisky giants) opt for rail. The container “feeder” ships operating from Grangemouth can offer cheaper services, but they are subject to weather at sea and congestion problems at the massive docks in Antwerp, Hamburg and Rotterdam.

Until 2000, rail from Coatbridge was the market leader for the transport of Deep Sea exports from Scotland, ahead of sea freight and road haulage, but the Hatfield passenger train crash of October that year had a profound and lasting impact on the Coatbridge “inland port”. Nationwide speed restrictions caused significant disruption across the national network for more than a year. Freightliner services could no longer work to timetable and a significant share of export container traffic then shifted from Coatbridge to feeder ships at Grangemouth – a loss from which Freightliner in Scotland has yet to fully recover.

But is there now a fortuitous opportunity for rail to win back more of its share of this market? From January 2015, an enhanced Sulphur Emission Control Area will impose a 90 per cent cut on airborne emissions from ships operating in the North Sea and English Channel – and shipping fuel cost increases of 50 per cent or more are anticipated. The impact on sea freight is already being felt, with DFDS recently announcing the end of its Harwich-Esbjerg service. So will the extra costs faced by shipping companies at Grangemouth be enough to tip the balance to rail for a big proportion of exports?

Scottish shipping operators have been resourceful and innovative in recent decades, and rail too will need to be imaginative in its approach to market opportunities, overcoming the complexities of its route infrastructure.

The Scottish Government holds the purse strings for the rail network now managed by Network Rail, and the government’s transport policy priorities – including the balance between road and rail – will have a fundamental impact on rail’s ability to compete effectively. The Rail Freight Group was therefore dismayed when the Scottish Government published its National Planning Framework 3 (NPF3) document last year with great emphasis on sea freight but barely a mention of rail freight. Three port-related proposals were recommended for National Development status, but no rail projects.

Encouragingly, the Scottish Parliament’s Infrastructure & Capital Investment Committee report on NPF3 in March this year noted “stakeholders’ concern that rail freight may not be receiving a level of Scottish Government consideration comparable to that afforded to sea freight related projects”, and recommended that National Development status for rail freight should be considered for the final NPF3 policy document.

A proper balance needs to be struck between sea and rail. Both are critically dependent on terminal facilities – and it is illogical, inconsistent and unfair for one mode (sea) to feature prominently in the list of geographically-specific National Developments while the other (rail) has none. Hopefully that view is shared by Minister for Local Government & Planning, Derek Mackay MSP, and Minister for Transport & Veterans, Keith Brown MSP.

• David Spaven is Scottish representative of the Rail Freight Group