David Spaven: Transport infrastructure investment must put carbon-reduction centre-stage

The recent news that the Welsh Government has decided not to build the controversial M4 ‘relief’ road near Newport should encourage Scottish Ministers to change direction on transport policy. The scrapping of the £2,000 million, 14-mile motorway plan – for cost and environmental reasons – has been hailed by Friends of the Earth Cymru as ‘great news for Wales and the planet’.

David Spaven, Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group

A low-carbon economy is central to the Scottish Government’s aims, and only recently the First Minister announced a ‘climate emergency’ – yet its bloated road-building programme has still not been cut back. £3,000m is to be spent on dualling the A96 between Aberdeen and Inverness, and a similar sum on the A9 between Perth and Inverness.

On the latter corridor, the Highland Main Line has seen a miserable allocation of government funds – with just £57m invested in modest track and signalling upgrades, providing very little benefit to rail freight.

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Yet the Scottish Government knows the important contribution rail freight can make to carbon reduction, 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 of the rail trunk haul.

Switching freight from road to rail can offer a ‘quick win’, as it involves doing the same for less carbon, rather than having to doing things completely differently (as is often the climate change prescription in other sectors). But infrastructure action to maximise rail freight’s potential lags far behind the generous funding for new roads.

One of the worst examples of capacity bottlenecks hindering the transfer of freight from road to rail is on the largely single-track Highland Main Line, where short crossing loops from the Victorian era constrain the daily Mossend-Inverness train for Tesco/Stobart to just 20 containers – yet the train locomotive could haul 28 containers, a 40 per cent increase in productivity!

This significantly hinders rail’s competitivity with road hauliers who enjoy the benefits of an entirely dual-lane or dual-carriageway A9. And with the progress of the A9 full-dualling scheme there are worries that freight will shift from rail to road – the opposite of government policy.

The Perth-Inverness corridor provides a good illustration of flaws in the current evaluation and prioritisation of transport infrastructure investment, to the disadvantage of rail freight. In 2008 the Scottish Government’s ‘Strategic Transport Projects Review’ (STPR) identified upgrading the Highland Main Line (HML) as the third-top priority among 29 road and rail schemes across Scotland. Investment of between £200m and £450m was envisaged, including ‘additional loops, dynamic loops or lengthening of double track sections‘ – designed to benefit both passenger and freight traffic.

The outcomes would include that ‘the freight improvements would make it considerably more attractive for freight hauliers to move containers and other goods by rail, by reducing journey times‘. Eleven years later, work has just been completed on a drastically scaled-down rail infrastructure programme. Freight train lengths – a crucial competitive factor – remain significantly constrained by the short crossing loops.

In the meantime, some years after STPR, a political decision was taken to fully dual the A9 between Perth and Inverness, at a then cost of £3,000m, despite this not having a proven business case (and being a lower priority in STPR than the HML upgrade). At no stage did the Scottish Government undertake a ‘cross-modal’ appraisal of the best mix of road and rail upgrades for the corridor – to meet policy aims and provide best value for the taxpayer.

A new approach to evaluation and prioritisation of transport infrastructure investment across Scotland – putting carbon-reduction centre-stage – is long overdue. This also needs to be linked with stronger guidance in Scottish Planning Policy to ensure that the land needs of rail freight are suitably protected in the interests of strategic – and sustainable – development.

A key area of potential is in the food and drink sector. Rail freight has long played a central role in the movement south of bottled spirits from hub container railheads at Coatbridge, Grangemouth and Mossend. But 100 per cent of the 1.5m tonnes of bulk spirit moved annually from the North of Scotland to maturation sites in the Central Belt is carried by heavy lorries. This has serious implications for CO2 emissions, for road damage and for road safety, with 50,000 long-distance whisky vehicle trips annually along the A9, and 50 per cent of HGV movements on the narrow A95 being whisky-related.

The Scottish Government could step in here – with infrastructure investment and short-term ‘pump priming’ for new train services – to provide a very practical demonstration of its faith in rail freight as a key contributor to carbon reduction. And taking thousands of heavy lorries off the roads would also boost road safety and significantly reduce the damage inflicted by 44-tonne vehicles on trunk road surfaces – and the cost of repairing them. What’s holding back Scottish Ministers?

David Spaven, Scottish Representative, Rail Freight Group