Friends of the Far North Line submission on "Freight Transport in Scotland" to Scottish Parliament Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee, January 2015.
1. FoFNL is a 150 member rail user group which seeks to support both passenger and freight services on the railways north, east and south from the Inverness hub.
2. These lines are all mostly single track with short passing loops and this seriously restricts their capacity for freight in particular.
3. FoFNL welcomes current moves to add more loops, longer loops, double track, modern signalling and electrification to the Perth-Inverness (HML) and Aberdeen-Inverness (InvAb) lines for the substantial improvement of both passenger and freight services. Progress has been much slower than expected.
4. FoFNL is currently pressing Network Rail to significantly improve line speed and capacity (with dynamic loops, faster points, improved signalling) on the Far North Line which is no longer able to cope with existing or potential traffic.
5. Track condition, gauge and weight restrictions affect all three lines which is a sure sign of past underinvestment. Oil tanks to Lairg can only travel 75% full because of restrictions on the Oykel viaduct. Using new lower platform wagons to take higher containers on the HML has recently been banned due to track concerns.
6. The passenger timetable on the FNL has recently been slowed down and now includes the totally unprecedented note "This train may run 15 minutes later on certain days due to the operation of a freight train in the Lairg area." This is another sign of lack of passing loop track capacity.
7. The offshore pipe train concerned runs from Caithess to Tees-side. Apart from the oil tanks, the only other freight on the FNL now is nuclear waste traffic.
8. Freight on the HML includes groceries, cement, timber products and the three flows to the FNL. There is no longer any freight on the InvAb line and paths are difficult to find. Much timber used to be carried.
9. Many former flows such as timber, coal, aggregates, grain, seed potatoes, whisky and new ones such as offshore oilfield supplies, and domestic and industrial waste could be carried by rail in the Highlands. Ports such as Invergordon should be reconnected to the railway and gauge clearance extended there from Elgin.
10. HITRANS is trying to re-establish a timber flow from Georgemas and Kinbrace to Inverness for the Norbord wood factory, seven miles east of the city. The potential flow is huge, but the roads in Sutherland would need a lot of strengthening. At the moment rail is also handicapped because costly transhipment is required at Inverness.
11. Norbord has obtained planning permission to more than double its output, but although the factory is adjacent to the InvAb line and formerly had a rail siding it was not stipulated that this should be replaced. The former siding was built over the last time the factory was extended.
12. There appears to be a potential mismatch between local government planning procedures and the provision of new rail terminal sites and road access to these. Councils are not responsible for rail services or rail infrastructure, and designations of land for rail expansion can easily be forgotten.
13. The A9 road is used to carry gas by road tanker to Caithness. North of Dornoch this road is hardly suitable for this dangerous cargo which would be more appropriately carried on the railway. The problem is how do you abstract a relatively small flow from a much bigger road contract in order to send it by rail?
14. Railfreight is recognised as a less polluting and more sustainable mode for transporting freight. One train load can replace many individual HGVs, and railfreight is much more fuel efficient reducing greenhouse gas emissions by some two thirds.
15. Fuel is a very volatile commodity both in price and supply. If there were to be a major upset in the Middle East and supply became difficult, the Highlands, being at the end of a long distribution chain, would be the first area to suffer. It would be essential to try to save fuel by trunk hauling supplies by rail or sea to nodes such as Inverness for onward transport by road.
16. Fuel price and supply can change very quickly but extra rail capacity takes time to install which is why we should be pressing ahead now to urgently double and electrify the badly restrictive rail routes in to the Highlands from Perth and Aberdeen.
17. Modal shift away from road to more sustainable means such as rail and sea is avowed Government policy. The results so far show that this needs to be much more vigorously pursued. Some level of direction is needed rather than laissez-faire. Good stewardship of the planet suggests we cannot afford the "luxury" of unbridled competition in this matter. Also, we should be finding ways to avoid carrying goods long distances when they could be produced locally. These are big questions, beyond FoFNL's determining, but they are fundamental ones which we hope the ICI committee will consider.
Rail Freight Group Submission to Holyrood Inquiry
The Rail Freight Group's recent submission to the Inquiry into Freight Transport being held by the Scottish Parliament's Infrastructure & Capital Investment Committee emphasises that, while road hauliers benefit from the ubiquity of dual-lane trunk roads across Scotland, on the rail network north of the Central Belt there are significant infrastructure capacity pinch points. Key examples are insufficiently long overtaking loops on the largely double-track route from Coatbridge / Mossend / Grangemouth to Aberdeen, and inadequate quantum and length of crossing loops on largely single-track routes, the worst example being the Highland Main Line. And by contrast to the widespread provision of generous structure height clearances for trucks on the Scottish trunk road network, the rail system is a patchwork of varying capability to handle the modern generation of freight containers.
Of course, rail's ability to compete for traffic depends on a number of factors, including not just the availability of suitable route and terminal infrastructure (partly determined by government investment), but also whether the terms of competition with other modes are fair, with regard to a variety of relevant government policies. It has been a longstanding objective of Scottish Government policy to encourage freight modal shift from road to more sustainable modes, including rail, and this aim is shared at the European, UK, regional and local levels of government - but government programmes do not consistently support this objective.
The RFG submission suggests that the Scottish Government needs to consider how it can restructure and more widely promote its Freight Facilities Grant and Mode Shift Revenue Support schemes - which are based on the environmental benefits of mode switch from road to rail - to reflect the trading realities of the current business environment and logistics supply chain trends. In England, the Department of Business, Innovation & Skills administers the 'Regional Growth Fund', which has supported three rail freight terminal developments, on the basis of the economic benefits which these would generate. Scotland needs to keep up with such changes elsewhere if we are to remain competitive.
Grant aid could also assist the development of innovative methods for handling rail freight, not least on 'peripheral' routes where justifying expensive infrastructure and aggregating large trainload volumes can be difficult. The Non-Intrusive Crossover System (NICS) - which was first developed in Scotland 11 years ago - provides a novel lower-cost means of connecting an existing main line track and a planned freight siding. NICS has been successfully used for engineering 'blockades' on the Tyne & Wear Metro and elsewhere - and could be particularly useful in the timber transport sector - but has still to secure full Network Rail approval.
Rail's economics are optimised where at least one end of the through transit has direct rail connection, and this underscores the importance of strategic protection for rail-connectable sites. Consideration of rail access must be undertaken at a sufficiently early stage of industrial site development planning, since past experience shows that trying to retro-fit rail facilities when these have not been 'passively' planned within the overall development footprint can be expensive or indeed impossible - as rail access is more constrained, eg in terms of curvature, than is the case with road haulage. We drew the Committee's attention to the recent granting of planning consent by Highland Council for a major expansion of the Dalcross Norboard plant without any requirement for passive provision for future rail access.
Finally, we also alerted the Committee to our longstanding concern over the unequal treatment of rail and road on the Perth-Inverness corridor, symbolised by the planned £3bn expenditure on full dualling of the A9 but a maximum of just £600m earmarked for the still predominantly single-track Highland Main Line. The road and rail investment appraisal processes are being undertaken entirely separately, without consideration of how a balanced package of road and rail developments might best meet public policy objectives, as well as securing best value for money. Equally, there has been no analysis of the extent to which road improvements will lead to modal shift of freight from rail to road - the opposite of Government policy. A lengthy correspondence between RFG and Transport Scotland (including the Freedom of Information process and an appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner) failed to produce any evidence that Transport Scotland had undertaken any 'cross-modal' analysis of the costs and benefits of a road/rail package, for example based on dualling only the busier sections of the A9 - from Aviemore to Inverness and Blair Atholl to Perth - while substantially extending double track on the railway and electrifying the route throughout.
The Committee's Freight Inquiry report is expected to be published in May.
David Spaven / Rail Freight Group / 14 April 2015