Time to invest in rail and let the train take the strain of lorry freight off our busy roads

West Central Scotland has the country's heaviest concentration of population and much of the surviving manufacturing and processing activity.

david spaven  scottish representative rail freight group
david spaven scottish representative rail freight group

It is therefore little surprise that most of the rail freight business supporting our economy is located there. From ports on the West Coast, such as Hunterston, through industrial plants like Caledonian Paper at Irvine, to key intermodal (container) hubs at Coatbridge and Mossend, rail freight is a strongly Strathclyde-oriented business.

However, East Coast locations still play an important part, and it is here that some of the most interesting opportunities for growth of rail freight may be realised. Over the last 20 years, Grangemouth has been transformed for rail – in particular with container trains to ­Aberdeen and the English Midlands, handling supermarket goods. In Aberdeen there are now three modern rail freight terminals.

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But terminal facilities are just one element. The capacity and capability of the route infrastructure – funded by the Scottish Government through Network Rail – is critical to rail’s ability to compete effectively against highly efficient (but environmentally inferior) road haulage services.

Between Aberdeen and the ­Central Scotland hubs, there are too few ‘paths’ for the longest freight trains, because overtaking loops – to allow passenger trains to pass – are very short by modern train length standards. While the entire trunk road to the Granite City is motorway or dual-carriageway, the railway still has two sections which are just single-track: east of Perth station and across the Tay; and between Montrose and Usan. This kind of sub-optimal infrastructure provision would simply not be tolerated on the road system.

The Central Scotland-Aberdeen railway’s ability to compete is also hampered by constraints on the height and width of containers.

This is particularly problematic for the chilled and frozen food ­sectors, which utilise wider refrigerated containers. A decade ago, a modest improvement was made to the rail ‘loading gauge’ – but the investment was limited to just £3 million (the cost of building around 200 metres of dual-carriageway) and this did not permit a breakthrough on the chilled and frozen goods which are such a big part of the North East economy.

There are no intermodal railheads over the 130-plus miles between Aberdeen and the Central Scotland rail hubs, leaving Dundee as one of the largest cities in Britain without any rail freight facilities.

Existing sidings near the city’s ­passenger station offer the potential for a low-cost railhead, but so far this location has not been favoured by local planners, inhibiting rail industry initiatives to get hundreds of lorries off the roads ­every week.

Fife currently has no rail freight facilities, but a vigorous community campaign for the reopening of the five-mile Levenmouth branch line has an important freight dimension.

The ‘mothballed’ railway has ­dedicated sidings at Cameron Bridge, serving Europe’s largest grain distillery – and less than two miles away is the major Diageo bottling plant at Leven, which currently generates enough lorry traffic to fill two export trains daily to the port of Grangemouth and southern markets.

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The case for reopening the railway has recently received encouragement from the Transport Minister, Humza Yousaf, and the return of freight to Cameron Bridge could help unlock rail’s potential for movement of bulk spirit across Scotland, complementing its long-established role in moving finished product from Coatbridge Freightliner Terminal to the big deep sea ports in England.

Perhaps the best prospect for rail is at Bathgate, where one of the largest concentrations of regional distribution centres in Scotland could be served by a new railhead at Boghall.

A decade ago, a plan to shift a car terminal to this site (to make way for the new passenger railway) was abandoned after all the track connection and signalling had been put in place at Boghall. With these ‘sunk’ costs avoided, there is scope to create a multi-user intermodal railhead which would allow more supermarket and retail traffic to switch to rail.

Bathgate might be a suitable hub for a ‘city logistics’ distribution centre, with final deliveries to Edinburgh and surrounding towns by electric road vehicles. Rail freight has much to offer in terms of economic, environmental and road safety benefits. Some of the most exciting opportunities are clearly along the East Coast. But partnership between the Scottish Government and the rail industry will be key.

David Spaven, Scottish representative, Rail Freight Group, www.rfg.org.uk.