David Spaven: Packaging passengers and small freight will benefit rural railways

Until the 1980s, a regular ­feature of Highland ­railway operation – on the Kyle and Mallaig lines in particular – was ‘mixed trains’, where the locomotive hauled both passenger coaches and freight wagons in a single trainload.

A train on the Kyle of Lochalsh to Dingwall railway line in October 1970. Picture: Hamish Campbell/TSPL

This was a useful way of sharing ­haulage costs on lightly-trafficked lines, but the practice disappeared when loco-hauled passenger trains were displaced by more economic diesel units with engines slung under their floors.

Thirty years on, could we now be about to see a resurgence of ‘small freight’ (or parcels) carried on rural and inter-city passenger trains across Scotland?

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In the 1990s, through the early years of rail privatisation, much traditional rail traffic was ditched in the pursuit of short-term profits – and the ­parcels-on-passenger trains market was completely abandoned, ­throwing the baby out with the ­bathwater.

In the early 2000s, nevertheless, some innovative rail operators began quietly to re-enter this ­market, ­recognising rail’s strength in ­bypassing urban road congestion and getting small consignments into the heart of major cities fast.

However, this was not based on a national network – rather the ­service developed on a limited, route-by-route basis, testing out the market for ­particular commodities on long-haul routes into London.

These services operate from ­Penzance and Plymouth to Bristol and London, and from Nottingham/Leicester to London, in the former case using the overnight sleeper train, and in the latter case the world’s fastest diesel train, the InterCity 125 – both with traditional internal layouts reflecting the original design requirement for parcels, newspapers, etc.

Their market is largely in the high-value sector – for example, legal, ­bio-medical, speciality foods, wines and spirits. Summer road congestion and winter weather has helped the Penzance service.

The InterCity Rail Freight ­company also organised a trial bespoke train service for retail traffic in roll ­cages from Rugby to London Euston in 2012 and 2014. The train service was ­provided on behalf of TNT and ­utilised former Motorail car-carrying coaches last used on the Penzance sleeper service in 2003.

A separate venture some years ago, promoted by HITRANS, the regional transport partnership for the ­Highlands, sees regular ­movements of high-value live seafood from ­Inverness to London on the ­Caledonian Sleeper.

The latter are contracted directly by Keltic Seafare of Dingwall, whose vans deliver the consignments to the sleeper at Inverness and provide the final delivery from London Euston to end-customers. The service addresses a specific constraint that the ­company faced: early ­morning ­delivery of relatively small volumes to a range of locations in the centre of ­London.

In 2017 and 2018, HITRANS ­commissioned research into the scope for an overnight train service from Caithness to the Central Belt, conveying seated passengers, sleeping ­passengers – and small freight. This identified a significant ­market for parcels-type traffic, based on cost and service benefits, allowing road ­carriers to grow their business ­without funding an additional ­vehicle/driver and reducing ­exposure to threats to road transport such as fuel costs, congestion and ­shortages of drivers.

Looking more widely across ­Scotland, the arrival of refurbished InterCity 125 diesel trains on the ­Glasgow/Edinburgh-Aberdeen/Inverness routes this year opens up the ­possibility of these more ­spacious trains incorporating parcels ­lockers for end-to-end journeys, with ­couriers providing the local road ­collection and delivery at each end of the rail trunk haul.

The Scottish Government agency, Transport Scotland, is investing in the procurement of five single-car diesel units which would be attached to existing two-car diesel units on rural ­Highland routes, providing space for bikes and outdoor sports ­equipment, as well as an additional toilet and seats.

It is likely that these will operate from Glasgow to Oban and Fort ­William, and from Inverness to ­Caithness and Kyle. Perhaps this ­creates an opportunity for rail to once again serve the parcels ­markets in the West and North Highlands, allowing road carriers to reduce very long (and expensive) road hauls with limited prospects of ‘back loads’ to southern markets.

Railway infrastructure is ­expensive to maintain, and the ScotRail ­franchise is the most expensive ­contract ever entered into by the Scottish Government – it is vital therefore that we get more ­traffic on to our rural and ­regional routes, cementing the railway’s social and economic role, as well as the substantial environmental and safety ­benefits it offers.

Bringing passengers and small freight together could be a key part of the strategy.

David Spaven, Scottish ­Representative, Rail Freight Group.