This article appeared in The Herald on Wednesday 21 January 2015 and is reprinted with permission.
Inside Track: David Ross, Highland Correspondent: Taking freight off Highland roads and on to rail would lift more than Highland spirits
An important submission just lodged at Holyrood for the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee inquiry's into freight transport in Scotland underlines the scale of the challenge in achieving an important green goal; taking freight off Highland roads and putting it on to rail.
Many of the problems are historic, some dating back to the Victorian era. But the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (Hitrans), the statutory regional transport partnership, elegantly spells out the need for change across different modes of transport: "Weakness in infrastructure provision leads to: road closures with detours of a hundred miles, island supermarket shelves becoming empty due to adverse sea conditions, fresh fish failing to get to market, livestock suffering, timber remaining icebound in forests and bottling halls in Central Scotland idly awaiting the supply of whisky."
The ideal is for freight to travel overnight when there are few or no passenger trains. However the Hitrans section on rail warns: " A much-discussed, commercially viable early arrival in Inverness of a retail goods train is simply impossible."
The Highland Rail Network connecting Oban, Fort William, Mallaig, Kyle of Lochalsh, Inverness, Wick and Thurso to the Central Belt is virtually all single track and has a restricted "loading gauge". The ability to move a loaded train on a particular stretch of rail depends on the height and width profile, the loading gauge. Hitrans continues: "Container clearance on the Highland Main Line is restricted, while on Inverness-Aberdeen improved gauge is available from Elgin east only. The restricted loading gauge on all Highland routes reduces the railway's ability to compete effectively against road."
Electrification of the line to Inverness would bring about a significant improvement in gauge, according to Hitrans but it appears this might not be until 2030. The nature of the Far North and West Highland lines limits access by certain types of freight locomotives and reduces the speed of all.
Meanwhile, "Fort William has only dedicated terminals for oil and alumina, Inverness handles bulk cement and supermarket goods, Lairg has oil discharge facilities and Georgemas receives nuclear and pipe trains."
Hitrans reasonably observes: "While access is regulated by Office of Rail Regulation (ORR) it would be perhaps helpful if Network Rail took a more proactive role in terminal development and management, possibly for timber which may have an otherwise detrimental effect on fragile roads."
It points to the success of the "Lifting the Spirit" project. A Hitrans-led initiative in partnership with Scotch Whisky Association, HIE, Moray Council and others, it allowed distillers to move bulk spirit by rail to and from Elgin during autumn 2013. Crucially, it enjoyed European financial support.
However, EU help is restricted by the need for the Scottish partner to provide match funding. So Hitrans suggests: "If a fund was established to support Scottish public bodies in their participation in EU projects there would be a real opportunity for Scotland's return from EU funding to increase significantly."
A modest enough proposal, given the scale of investment needed in Highland rail.
Letter to Herald from Richard Ardern (FoFNL):
David Ross's Inside Track article ("Taking freight off the roads would lift Highland spirits", The Herald, January 21) is timely. It would be of huge benefit to the Highland economy to get retail goods trains in to Inverness at the time of day that commerce requires. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce have long been making the same request for earlier business train arrivals in Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh.
The Highland economy is being seriously held back because the Highland Main Line from Perth to Inverness is still largely single track and lacks the capacity for more trains. The benefits of doubling much of the line would be immense.
A 20 minute long section of single track permits only three trains in an hour, two in one direction and one in the other. Doubling this section and signalling trains with a five minute headway would allow 12 trains in each direction, a huge increase in capacity.
Electrifying the line too would bring big time savings because electric trains can gallop up the long gradients to Drumochter and Slochd at 100 miles an hour. Everyone can see this happening when driving up Beattock on the M74. Thus the biggest returns from future electrification would be gained from tackling Dunblane to Perth and on to Inverness after EGIP is completed in 2018.
Mark Carne CEO of Network Rail was in Aberdeen last week and made the usual comment about priority for enhancements benefiting the largest number of people. Moir Lochhead expressed the same view when First Group took over the ScotRail franchise ten years ago. Such understandably worthy sentiments seriously disadvantage the Highland railways which are also part of the integrated network, not a second class appendage.
The Scottish and Highland economies would both benefit from an Airdrie-Bathgate type refurbishment of the main lines between Perth and Inverness and between Inverness and Aberdeen. A special Crofter Counties scheme had to be used to upgrade single track roads in the Highlands. Maybe a similar special fund is now needed to finally connect all of Scotland's cities by modern railways? By 2025 perhaps?