David Spaven: Switching freight from road to rail could be a ‘quick win’ situation

The new National Transport Strategy (NTS) for Scotland published earlier this month was greeted as a disappointment and a wasted opportunity by organisations with particular ­concerns about the all-encompassing climate emergency.
Using the railways could cut emissions by up to 76 per cent compared to road haulage and improve congestion and road safety. Picture: John DevlinUsing the railways could cut emissions by up to 76 per cent compared to road haulage and improve congestion and road safety. Picture: John Devlin
Using the railways could cut emissions by up to 76 per cent compared to road haulage and improve congestion and road safety. Picture: John Devlin

The Scottish Green Party warned that it “lacks any vision and commitment needed for an emergency response” and Transport spokesperson John Finnie MSP said: “Transport emissions are ­playing a significant role in our climate and public health emergencies. This ­document may acknowledge that, but without any real strategy to ­lower them it is meaningless.”

Colin Howden, director of Transform Scotland, the sustainable transport alliance, said: “Independent analysis by the Scottish Parliament demonstrates that the government has systematically favoured high-carbon over low-carbon infrastructure spend over the past decade, yet its current plans are to move further towards high-carbon spending.”

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That disappointment is shared by the rail freight sector – indeed the NTS only superficially addresses the whole freight industry. While climate change is frequently, and rightly, flagged up in many ­sections of the text (18 times), road freight is mentioned just twice, HGVs four times, shipping three times – and rail freight not at all in the 61-page document. The omission of rail freight is all the more surprising in light of the Scottish Government’s High Level Output Statement ­published in 2017, which set a target of a 7.5 per cent increase in rail freight for the period 2019-24.

There is clearly insufficient awareness within the Scottish Government of the important contribution rail freight can make – in both the short and long term – to delivering policy objectives, for example through ­cutting CO2 emissions by up to 76 per cent compared to road haulage, even where road collection and delivery legs are required at either end.

Switching freight from road to rail can offer a ‘quick win’, as it involves performing the same activity for less carbon, rather than trying to do things completely differently (often relying on untried technological solutions), as is often the climate change prescription in other sectors. Other policy benefits of modal switch from road to rail include: reduced road congestion; improved road safety; less damage to trunk road surfaces and helping to minimise the economic consequences of driver shortages in the road haulage industry.

A recent report for the Rail Freight Group found that an ambitious growth strategy for rail freight across Britain could generate between £75 billion and £90bn in environmental and economic benefits over the coming decade. The study – ‘What level of ambition is achievable and worthwhile for rail freight?’ – highlighted how a new approach from national and local governments, along with continued investment from the rail industry, could unlock growth.

However, to achieve these benefits would require different public funding and policy frameworks to those now in place: further targeted capital investment and revenue support (at relatively modest levels in the ­context of Scottish Government expenditure on climate change) and other complementary policies.

Such an approach would ­encourage further significant private ­investment in rail freight services and ­terminals. The report highlights seven key measures to unlock growth:

• Accelerated investment in the ­strategic rail freight network

• Electrification of core routes to further improve rail’s environmental benefits

• Investment and support for new rail freight services

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• Reform of planning law to support a greater uptake of rail

• Increased grants to encourage uptake

• Mainstreaming rail freight in transport and industrial policy.

• Road pricing for lorries.

While capacity enhancements and electrification will require cross-Border co-operation between the Scottish and UK governments (and road pricing would require UK-level action), the majority of the measures above lie within the gift of the Scottish Government. As the NTS states: “Freight is important to the success of our economy, but we must ensure that the negative impacts generated by the movement of goods vehicles are tackled.”

We can only hope that in the forthcoming Strategic Transport Projects Review 2 there will be proper acknowledgement of rail freight’s role in tackling these negative impacts (in particular the climate emergency), as well as its potential to contribute significantly to the achievement of other strategic policy aims for future Scotland.

The big symbolic test of the Scottish Government’s commitment to change will be whether it continues to back the £6bn-plus dualling of the A9 and A96 roads linking Inverness with Perth and Aberdeen – or finally admits that the parallel, largely single-track, inter-city railways desperately need to be brought into the 21st century.

David Spaven, Scottish representative, Rail Freight Group