In our February 2022 issue of Far North Express we reported, with some excitement, on The Highland Council's enlightened decision to back the planners of modal shift of freight to rail, such as Frank Roach of HITRANS, by giving planning permission to the project to facilitate lineside loading of timber to dedicated trains at Altnabreac.
A year on and there is an air of frustration and disappointment. So far attempts to procure dedicated rail vehicles have failed and there is no sign yet of the rail link into West Fraser's (formerly Norbord's) factory being built. The design for the installation of double track and signalling through the new Inverness Airport Station includes provision for this.
It is however very heartening to see that West Fraser has this statement on its website:
"At the moment, virtually all of the OSB (Oriented Strand Board, used in the construction industry) manufactured in the Inverness plant goes out by road, but right now we are in a capital process with Network Rail. We've run trials and are in the process of building the capital infrastructure to be able to switch to rail and that will have a massive impact on transport emissions. By switching from road to rail we estimate that we will make a saving of around 9,000 tonnes of CO2 a year."
To stakeholders such as ourselves, and other onlookers, the process of working towards a more sustainable, and less damaging transport system, seems somewhat haphazard. It can appear that there are two parallel universes in existence in Scotland. On the one hand we have the Scottish Government's policy of modal shift, designed to reduce the causes of global warming, which is embodied in Transport Scotland's Rail Directorate and its specific programme to eliminate diesel passenger rail vehicles and to electrify as much of the network as possible. And on the other there is the Scottish Government's plan to spend large sums on road projects instead, which are ostensibly about improving safety, but will inevitably also encourage more road use rather than less.
At the end of October the Inverness, Highlands, and Islands edition of the Press & Journal carried a substantial article by Paul Boobyer, project manager for the Timber Transport Forum. The article only covered road vehicles and the second paragraph stated, "The current annual timber harvest from Scottish land is around seven million tonnes, which will need to be transported by netzero vehicles within the next 13 years."
The article went on to cover Transport Scotland's Zero Emission Truck Taskforce and spoke in detail about what is required to remove diesel power from the timber transport industry. This would have been a wonderful opportunity to discuss all the options for transporting timber and the fact that rail provides a way of greatly reducing the need for so many individual vehicles. If the greatest proportion of timber's journey could be accomplished by rail, far fewer such vehicles would need to be built, thereby making valuable savings on materials and manufacturing processes, not to mention the savings on the power needed to shift a fleet of lorries, compared with long trains.
Although the article in the P&J missed the chance to mention rail, a search through the Timber Transport Forum website did produce some reassuring quotes:
"What do we want to achieve? - Minimise the impact of timber transport on the public road network - Moving timber by other modes of transport where possible." And this from the Highland Timber Transport Group (THC area) section of the site:
"Explore and promote the potential for increased use of rail transport, including the development of additional rail terminals."
These aspirations need to be followed through as a matter of urgency; it would be of great benefit if the road and rail arms of Transport Scotland would continuously work together to find ways of transferring traffic to rail, perhaps they do, but for the Roads Directorate to shift its emphasis from large building projects to maintenance and to reducing the need for road investment may feel counterintuitive, especially when faced with a strong roads lobby.
Doubtless there will be losers in the process of modal shift, and the road haulage industry understandably tries to protect its interests. However, this is where government comes in - it is its job to ensure that the best transport methods are used for the public good. This obviously requires making it as easy as possible for businesses to decide to shift to rail transport where possible.
The printing of the article in the P&J prompted the penning of a letter, reproduced below, which the paper printed on 3 November.
Sir, - Your article, Tough road ahead in bid to decarbonise timber lorries (October 29), reveals a dangerous focus in the minds of planners on the permanent use of road vehicles to transport timber in Scotland.
Nowhere in the article is there any mention of rail, yet this is the obvious way to transport huge quantities of heavy timber.
Of course the timber needs to be transported to the nearest railhead, but the number of vehicles needed to do this would be far fewer than the number currently used to move multiple individual loads on our road system.
Clearly it is necessary to replace diesel lorries with battery or hydrogen powered vehicles. However the expense in terms of carbon emissions during lorry construction, and use of scarce minerals in the power units, should dictate that the most economical and environmentally friendly method of transport should be chosen, keeping the number of separate road vehicles to the absolute minimum.
An example of an ideal system is the planned loading facility at Altnabreac (in Caithness). Self-powered vehicles will be needed to move the timber to the loading point on the railway. Once it is there it will be able to make its journey by rail direct to the West Fraser factory near the new Inverness Airport Station (once the company installs the rail connection which has been designed into the adjacent track formation).
This is not only a question of making the best use of limited resources while keeping carbon emissions at a minimum, it is also a safety and environmental matter for our roads. HGVs loaded with timber damage the road surfaces and can make driving unpleasant for other users.
A single timber train replaces dozens of HGVs.
It is to be hoped that the Roads Directorate and Rail Directorate of Transport Scotland are working hand-in-glove to achieve the necessary outcome, which may well involve some financial incentives and assistance to ensure this.
Going With The Flow
The plan to recommence timber from the Flow Country to Inverness by rail has been stalled as wagons are not currently available. It had been hoped to run a demonstrator project, building on the success of the Georgemas trial of 2020. Planning permission for a lineside loading pad has been awarded. Discussions are ongoing on routes to wagon procurement. The economics of timber by rail will be much improved if West Fraser at Morayhill decides to create a rail terminal taking advantage of the signalling alterations at the new Inverness Airport station.