David Spaven: Let the train take the strain and upgrade rural lines

David Spaven, Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group
David Spaven, Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group
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Around 80 per cent of the freight traffic carried on Scotland’s rail network travels over the West Coast Main Line (WCML) corridor, linking key hubs in Central Scotland with major markets and import sources of in England, mainland Europe, and deep sea ­destinations via the largest ­English ports.

But the 100 miles of the WCML within Scotland constitutes a small ­fraction of our 1,760-mile rail ­network, which extends to the West Highlands, Thurso in the north and Stranraer in the south west.

A uniquely high proportion of the network is made up of largely single-track routes serving predominantly rural territory, and their core function is overwhelmingly the movement of passengers. But could these underutilised rail corridors fulfil a bigger economic and environmental role in the Scottish Government’s aim to see rail freight volume increase by 7.5 per cent between 2019 and 2024?

Railways – with their high fixed costs for a dedicated, guided route-way – are volume-hungry. In essence, to compete effectively with road ­haulage, freight trains need to be as long as possible. In Scotland, some trains linking the Central Belt and southern markets can operate to the maximum length achievable ­anywhere on the British network, namely 775 metres, or the equivalent of more than 50 lorries in one swift, safe and sustainable movement.

But on the internal Scottish routes, rail’s advantage over road is significantly reduced as a result of historical infrastructure constraints, ­particularly on single-track lines where crossing loops are required for trains to pass each other.

The most notorious example is on the Highland Main Line from Perth to Inverness, over which the daily ­Tesco/Stobart container train is restricted – due to short crossing loops – to just 20 containers, despite the train locomotive being capable of hauling up to 28.

Scottish Government funding for enhancement of the ‘supply side’ is therefore clearly a critical factor in rail freight realising its potential, but is there actually enough demand on rural routes to fill regular freight train services?

Whisky traffic provides an interesting example. Every year nearly 1.5m tonnes of bulk spirit is shifted from the North of Scotland to ­maturation sites and blending plants in ­Central Scotland – but 100 per cent of this traffic has been by road since 1992.

In an attempt to find a more ­sustainable solution – which would also be competitive with road ­haulage – the regional transport partnership, HITRANS, pioneered the Lifting the Spirit trial train service from Elgin to Grangemouth in 2013, part-funded by the European Union.

Many lessons were learnt, but five years on, the roads are still taking all the strain. A key problem is that no single company – even Diageo, the whisky giant – has enough ­traffic to fill a regular train on its own.

A range of traffic flows – in particular from the wider food and drink ­sector – needs to be aggregated together to make the rail proposition viable. But not all the potential rail traffic will switch overnight from road haulage – manufacturers and processors have their established contracts with road hauliers, and some will adopt a ‘wait and see’ approach before taking the plunge.

Rail hauliers – who operate in a generally low-margin market – cannot be expected to take all the risks of planning and laying on a regular train service, for which there is not yet long-term customer commitment and which inevitably will lose money in its start-up phase.

The answer is surely for Scottish Government to take an imaginative approach, such as it did some years ago for the development of new bus routes – providing ‘pump priming’ funds to cover early losses while ­traffic builds, with the proviso that the subsidy is strictly time-limited, after which the rail service has to ­survive commercially. This kind of innovative measure should be a key factor in the Scottish Government realising its growth aims for rail freight.

Some ‘deep rural’ routes could also play a part, with a combination of strategic infrastructure investment and time-limited start-up grants facilitating a significant switch of freight from unsuitable roads.

Corridors where this approach could succeed include the West Highland Line, where bridge weight restrictions and short crossing loops are a constraint on rail playing a full part in the massive planned expansion of output at the Fort William aluminium smelter, and the Far North Line from Inverness to Caithness, which is also significantly constrained by inadequate infrastructure, yet has the potential to be carrying a much bigger share of overland traffic, including supermarket containers, ­offshore oil supplies, gas oil and timber.

It is in all our interests that much more of Scotland’s extensive rail network should play a significant part in the rail freight revival which the Scottish Government wants to see delivered over the coming years.

David Spaven, Scottish representative, Rail Freight Group.