David Spaven: Time is ripe for rail freight to expand and grow

David Spaven,  Scottish representative Rail Rreight Group
David Spaven, Scottish representative Rail Rreight Group
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The Scottish Government’s commitment to the development of rail freight – and the strategic benefits which it brings to the country’s economy and environment – is enshrined in the ‘High Level Output Specification (HLOS) for Control Period 6 (CP6) covering the years 2019 to 2024. Two statements stand out in this important document:

“The Scottish ministers expect Network Rail to develop a plan, with the wider industry, for the start of CP6 which should facilitate the growth of new rail freight business. The plan should include both maximising the use of existing flows and the development of new business/terminal facilities… Under this plan the Scottish ministers would require all reasonable steps to be taken to facilitate growth of 7.5 per cent in rail freight traffic carried on the Scotland route, of which, at least 7.5 per cent will represent a growth in new business (ie new traffic flows, not previously moving by rail).”

‘The Scottish ministers require that Network Rail clearly demonstrate throughout CP6 that it is using all levers at its disposal to make the use of rail freight attractive to business across Scotland, including simplicity of processes and a flexible approach to accommodating new rail freight traffic.’

The rail freight industry has had to come to terms with the severe decline of coal traffic, finding new customers to meet growth targets and spread the benefits of rail freight across Scotland. However, traditional bulk traffics – such as cement from Dunbar and Clitheroe to regional distribution railheads, and oil from Grangemouth – continue to be key sources of business, and rail has a very long established pedigree in moving containerised exports from Central Scotland to Deep Sea and European ports in England.

But the biggest future potential lies in the domestic intermodal sector, moving a large variety of generally palletised goods in containers from National Distribution Centres in England to Regional Distribution Centres and supermarkets in Scotland.

Since the supermarket company Safeway pioneered use of rail with its daily Mossend-Inverness train in 1997, the domestic intermodal business has seen massive growth. There are now no fewer than 30 trains a week to Central Scotland from Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal in the West Midlands of England.

And the benefits of rail are spread more widely, with daily trains from the Grangemouth and Mossend hubs to railheads in Aberdeen and Inverness respectively.

Key players in this sector are road-rail logistics companies such as WH Malcolm, John J Russell and Stobart, consolidating traffic from a variety of customers into big, cost-effective trainloads. The combination of the acknowledged expertise and customer-care of the road haulage sector with rail freight’s ability to drive down unit costs has given an increasingly wide range of end-users the confidence to put rail at the heart of the supply chain.

This is a positive story, but the rail freight industry faces significant challenges if it is to realise its full potential. Fundamental to getting the rail offer right for a broader range of traffics is the need to make volume-hungry trains and terminals even more cost-effective.

On the crucial West Coast Main Line (WCML) axis – which handles 80 per cent of Scotland’s rail freight – securing ‘paths’ for 75mph freight trains on a predominantly 125mph passenger railway can be difficult.

Most of the overtaking loops on the line are shorter than the 775m maximum length of freight trains, and many of the entry and exit points from the main line are designed for only 15-20mph speeds, further 
constraining rail’s ability to compete with trunk road haulage. And, 
ironically, the knock-on impact of the planned HS2 high-speed line 
threatens to reduce the number of freight paths on the WCML north of Crewe.

Appropriate investment by the UK and Scottish Governments is therefore vital to ensure that rail is competitive with long-haul trucking, which has benefitted from very substantial investment in new motorways and dual-carriageways.

Fortunately, the continuing availability of Freight Facilities Grants in Scotland (despite being scrapped in England) has aided the expansion of existing rail terminals north of the Border to handle greater volumes more cost-effectively – and has also assisted the creation of new terminals to serve new markets.

But the lengthy lead-times and complex negotiations required with Network Rail – who control the infrastructure – can be off-putting for companies unused to the railway environment. Great store is therefore being attached to the Scottish Government’s requirement of the infrastructure company to ensure “simplicity of processes and a flexible approach to accommodating new rail freight traffic”.

With the road haulage sector facing major challenges in terms of road congestion and driver shortages, the time is ripe for rail freight to win substantial quantities of new business – but both the industry and government need to play their parts in delivering the goods.

David Spaven, Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group