David Spaven: Rail could take the strain off our roads

David Spaven Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group
David Spaven Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group
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Transport Scotland’s 2017 guide to rail freight – Delivering Your Goods – ­highlighted the crucial role played by rail in the transport of whisky from Scotland to foreign markets.

One of the key positive outcomes of the otherwise infamous Beeching Report of 1963 was the development of a network of container ­terminals linked by fast, fixed-­formation Freightliner trains. Terminals in Glasgow, and later ­Coatbridge, became central to the whisky ­supply chain – and in 2018 Coatbridge Freightliner still provides ­crucial daily links to Britain’s big four deep sea ports at Felixstowe, Southampton, London Gateway and Liverpool.

However, southbound movements of the finished product represent just one element of the whisky ­supply chain. 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 on road since 1992. Individual malt distilleries are far too small to serve by direct rail ­connection, and even substantial grain ­distilleries have seen their dedicated rail ­sidings fall into abeyance in the face of intense road competition.

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. This attracted support from distillers and the wider food and drink ­sector, with the Scotch Whisky Association concluding that the trial “demonstrated real appetite across the supply chain for change”.

Many lessons were learned, but more than four years on – in the absence to date of sufficient commitment and collaboration between the whisky sector, the rail industry and the Scottish Government – the roads are still taking all the strain.

Complete dependence on road haulage has other down sides, both in terms of climate change (CO2 emissions), road damage and road safety, with lorries disproportionately involved in fatal road ­accidents. There are particular worries along the single-carriageway A95 through Speyside, where half of all HGV movements are whisky-related, and on the A9 to the south which sees around 50,000 long-distance whisky vehicle trips annually.

Yet an integrated road-rail option is perfectly feasible, with convenient mothballed railheads located at Elgin and Keith. And the Scottish Government’s 2017 rail freight strategy took an upbeat line which should encourage prospects for whisky by train: ‘We will galvanise efforts to overcome the technical, cultural and regulatory challenges towards a ‘can do’ approach, with the needs of rail freight customers at its heart.

“We will invest, along with the industry, in the whole system solutions and innovations which can meet the demands of the modern market, for the benefit of Scotland’s economy, its environment and its communities.”

In Central Scotland – with appropriate pump-priming from the Scottish Government – rail is well-placed to make a breakthrough at key spirits destinations, which could be served by a shuttle train service linking Speyside, maturation and bottling plants, and hub container railheads at ­Coatbridge, Grangemouth and Mossend.

The largest grain distillery in Europe, at Cameron Bridge, has its own sidings connecting with the mothballed Levenmouth branch line, the subject of a grassroots campaign for the return of passenger and freight trains to this neglected corner of Scotland. It is just two miles by road from Cameron Bridge to the major bottling plant at Leven. Other large grain distilleries sit beside operational railways at Invergordon and ­Girvan, with opportunities to transport wheat, as well as spirit, by train.

At Cambus/Blackgrange, the largest bonded warehouse site in Europe lies adjacent to the Stirling-Alloa ­railway, while the massive Shieldhall bottling plant in south west Glasgow is less than a mile by road from a mothballed freight railhead at Deanside. Major maturation complexes in Dumbarton, Drumchapel and ­Dalmuir are on average only 12 miles by lorry from Deanside or an alternative railhead at Elderslie.

The scope for rail to provide a high-quality, sustainable alternative to road is clear, but progress is crucially dependent on a strategic perspective – and collaboration between the private and public sectors – in order to realise the substantial commercial, economic and environmental prizes on offer.

David Spaven, Scottish representative, Rail Freight Group.