RFG logo

Decarbonisation and innovation at RFG Annual Scottish Conference 2021

The themes of decarbonisation and innovation were evident during this year’s RFG Scottish Conference, with all the presenters emphasizing a strong positive outlook for rail freight in the years ahead. The event was held online on 24 March.

In his keynote speech, Michael Matheson, MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, praised the industry’s “heroic efforts” in keeping supplies moving during the pandemic, saying he was impressed by the flexibility and co-ordination shown by all parts of the sector.

He also highlighted the contribution of rail freight to Scotland’s Net Zero environment goals and economic growth., adding that the recently published phase one recommendations of the Strategic Transport Projects Review include small-scale gauge improvements to support rail freight.

Alex Hynes, Managing Director, Scotland’s Railways, said there had been £8bn of ongoing enhancement investment in rail from the Scottish Government since 2007 which was helping support a modal shift. He encouraged the rail freight industry to be “candid and constructive friends as we are determined to be a better partner with you.”

He suggested that there may be fewer passenger train service in the longer term which will create more opportunities for freight and hoped that post-pandemic the system would be less biased towards passengers and more biased towards freight.

Martin Jones, Deputy Director, Access & International Economics, Markets & Strategy, Office of Rail & Road (ORR), said the challenges as the industry recovers from the pandemic are: revenue, speed and agility, and rail reform. Equally, he noted that rail reform will also present opportunities, along with improvements in performance and capacity.

The rail freight industry had been working towards a more environmentally friendly solution for some time, although not always recognising that, said Graham Preston, Head of Planning, Efficiency and Innovation, DB Cargo (UK) Ltd. For example, the Class 66s introduced years ago were greener than the locos they replaced. He explained that DB Cargo is committed to further improving their sustainability and are running trials to power locos with 100% renewable HVO fuel, which produces significantly less carbon than conventional diesel.

The port of Grangemouth has invested £3m in its rail facility, including extending the sidings to dual 775m, and Ian Wilson of Forth Ports called for gauge enhance beyond the Central Belt to help it develop its rail services and secure rail corridors straight to the customer.  Ian noted the potential for a greater use of rail, and the potential for greenport policy to support growth.

Paul Davison, AECOM, and Keith Fisken, Southeast of Scotland Transport Partnership (SESTran), described the work they have been undertaking on sustainable freight transport.  They suggested some ideas to maximise the potential for modal shift, including underwriting a multi-user freight train running a circuit Grangemouth – Inverness – Aberdeen, as well as passing loops and using passenger trains for freight,

Shona Clive is project lead for the Scottish Rail Cluster project, which aims to help SMEs looking to diversify into the rail sector. She explained that with 98% of Scottish businesses categorised as ‘small’ it was important to set up more ways for them to establish better links with the industry. Shona encouraged everyone to look at their website and consider how they can participate and support.

In the afternoon session, six RFG members gave short presentations on innovative developments they were working on.

Neil Sime of Victa Railfreight talked about the successful trial but unique challenges of moving timber by rail, which had not occurred in Scotland for 15 years before last summer.

Andrew Stirling of PD Stirling explained that two new services were being launched out of the Mossend terminal, including one traffic flow that was new to rail.

Tarmac would have found it had to justify the investment in its new mill at the Dunbar plant if it was not able to rely on rail freight and Chris Swan praised the support from Network Rail and Transport Scotland.

Greg March of Orion, part of Rail Operations Group, explained that using old passenger trains to transport express freight allowed services to run at 100mph and it was planning to launch a six days a week Anglo-Scottish service in the summer,

David Turner of WH Malcolm said the 2020s would be the decade of decarbonisation but if rail freight was to prosper, companies needed to be confident of network resilience in order to invest in new facilities and rolling stock.

Luigi Napolitano explained that Aberdeen Harbour Board saw rail links as a vital component of the success of its new £350m South Harbour development, which is at the heart of the Energy Transition Zone (ETZ).

These presentations highlighted the positive approach to rail freight growth in Scotland, from businesses and Government.  Whilst there are challenges to overcome, there is real optimism in the potential of rail freight to support the Scottish economy and decarbonisation.

Thanks to all our sponsors for their support, to all our presenters and all those who attended and participated.  We hope that next year’s Scottish Conference will see us all sitting in the same room and making the traditional visit to a member’s rail freight site in the afternoon.