Few would disagree that railfreight should have a key role in serving industry in a safer cleaner way which reduces road congestion and improves productivity. The Government -directed closure of coal fired power stations will benefit the environment but it has led to a substantial loss of traffic for railfreight companies. This has not been compensated for by equally robust Government environmental directives to move other freight traffic from road to rail. We are in danger of having a weakened railfreight industry because of it.
In the Highlands, Frank Roach of HITRANS has done a great amount of useful work in identifying potential rail freight traffic. This deserves grateful recognition. But regulation is so skewed in favour of using road haulage that, despite a severe shortage of HGV drivers, it has been difficult to make progress. The lack of capacity on the predominantly single track railways is a major factor too. Capital expenditure is needed.
Timber logs used to be carried by rail within and from the Highlands. The amount of timber being harvested is growing and this is likely to continue for the next 40 years, but at present none of it is going by rail. Frank's "Branchliner" project to take timber in bulk from Kinbrace and Georgemas on the FNL to users such as Norbord near Inverness is now with the timber industry to action.
The industry is saying that an ageing railway line lacking in freight yards, modern sidings and loading areas make it unviable for an individual company to make the pioneering greener move from road to rail. There are Government grants available but they are seen to be insufficient when it is so easy to put logs on a truck and leave the authorities to strengthen the roads and the police to deal with mishaps.
Norbord expanded its factory and built over its previous siding, but has now opened a new factory and needs double its previous roundwood supply. Not all of this will come from forests close to a railway, but the railway would certainly be a better option to get the wood out from the flow country where the roads are not robust. Public funding of a siding and associated passing loop at Kinbrace would have wider benefits for the operation of the railway. A combination of company and public funding at the factory end could provide the siding and the signalling to get this project under way.
We do need all parties to co-operate to solve this logjam in funding.
There is a similar situation in Moray with all the many different streams of traffic associated with the whisky industry. This is another expanding industry. Frank Roach organised the "Lifting the Spirits" trial based on Elgin three years ago which showed what could be done. It is likely that Keith might prove to be a better site for the concentration depot which would be needed for outwards and inbound traffic. There is railway land available with access for lorries.
The amount of lorry traffic generated to and from Moray along the narrow A95 is of some concern. Again, the industry needs a strong incentive to adopt the rail solution for some of this traffic. Public expenditure elsewhere on tackling road surfaces, congestion, emissions etc could be saved, but history has proven little will from companies to change habits. Using the road is so easy.
Intermodal carriage of groceries by rail and road has been one of the fastest growing sectors of railfreight. The Highland Main Line (HML) still has the Stobart Tesco train to Inverness following on from the pioneering Safeway train to Inverness and on to Georgemas which only ceased because Safeway were taken over and the depot goalposts moved.
The Co-op is going to build a new distribution depot at Inverness Airport Business Park. It would be good to see the bulk supplies coming in by rail and maybe some of the finished product from Norbord nearby could piggy back as a return load?
Not many years ago there was a daily bulk parcels train to Inverness for DHL. The firm's circumstances changed and it ceased to run. Menzies Distribution is now a big player in parcels at Inverness. Maybe the train could be revived through co-operation with other companies and a wood product return load? Maybe a section could travel on to Georgemas and supersede some of the numerous "white vans" on the A9?
There are other freight flows which could go by rail. Rail freight gains competitively the longer the distance to be hauled. The Highlands are well placed to take advantage of this. What must be sorted first is the scourge of the growing single track capacity limitations on the number of trains and on operational robustness and resilience. As the Scottish Chambers of Commerce have said "Single track lines to Scotland's cities are unacceptable in the 21st century".
A concerted programme to double track the HML and the Aberdeen to Inverness railway for increased passenger and freight use (and for the two to act as diversionary routes for each other) is sorely needed. At present it is a severe handicap to both the Highland and the Scottish economies. Modern, efficient railway lines to Inverness and Aberdeen and further north should be strategic imperatives for Scotland. The many environmental benefits of, and sustainability of, using the railways make this a no-brainer.
Let us get these lines modernised and better used for freight as well as for passengers!