Annual Scottish Conference

Event report: Annual Scottish Conference 2023

The Scottish Government’s decision to set targets for rail freight growth has helped change behaviours and mindsets, says Bill Reeve, Director of Rail, Transport Scotland. He told delegates to the annual RFG Scotland Conference on 29 March 2023 that the Government and private sector working closely together was helping drive innovation and that there were many examples of how upgrades to the network could be designed to benefit both passengers and freight.

The growth target for the next five-year period from April 2024 will be 8.7% compared to 7.5% in CP6. Bill was keen to emphasise that this wasn’t a cap, and there was an expectation that more could be achieved.

Alex Hynes, Managing Director, Scotland’s Railway, said the ambition is to make rail the primary logistics choice in Scotland. He stressed that it is important that the industry highlights its successes, and his team has made videos on rail freight in Scotland alongside the ‘The Freight Escape’ videos made by Network Rail to talk about the benefits of rail freight. And he highlighted plans to allow passenger train schedules to be altered to allow freight movements if it can be demonstrated that the net benefit of moving freight is greater.

The conference was held at Progress Rail’s South Queensferry facility and Dr Hannah Persson, Senior Engineer – Crossing Development, Engineering & Assurance, explained how the rail crossings are designed, made and maintained at the facility, with delegates given the chance to take a brief tour at the end of the meeting. She said innovation was key to the business, with continual work to increase safety and make the products more robust to reduce maintenance requirements.

 Erin Law, Commercial Manager – UK Paper Hub & Freeports, Forth Ports Limited, said the new Forth Green Port was an opportunity to reindustrialise Central Scotland and beyond through the development of a green growth corridor, based around Grangemouth, Rosyth and Leith. It will create up to 50,000 high-quality jobs, promote decarbonisation, establish hubs for global trade and investment, and foster an innovative environment.

Phil Hibberd, Engagement Manager, RSSB, said RSSB’s R&D programme allows industry to work together to explore and develop opportunities – and to make a real difference. He needs the industry to tell RSSB what the barriers are to rail freight growth where R&D could help and he encouraged everyone to participate in upcoming events to help identify and understand existing and emerging priorities.

RFG is active in Scotland and Martin Bignell, Scotland and North England Representative, outlined some of the activities and events he has been involved with. He noted that a common question from potential customers is ‘where do I start if I want to use rail freight?’ and that technology has huge potential to help utilise existing capacity better.

Haydon Bartlett-Tasker, Crosstech, gave a demonstration of some of that technology, explaining his team’s work on automating freight access right management to make spot bidding and timetable planning easier for Network Rail, freight operators and wider industry, helping to drive modal shift from road to rail. Crosstech works closely with Network Rail as they seek to move away from systems which are frequently based around Excel spreadsheets towards greater automation.

Terry Dillon, Senior Programme Manager at Skills Development Scotland, said collaboration between Government and industry was helping develop skills systems that employers need. There are three levels of apprenticeships (foundation, modern and graduate) but also a focus on meta-skills which support apprentices’ ability to cope and excel in the face of change, to solve problems, to collaborate with others and to create successful futures.

Dr Florian Scheuring, Assistant Professor of Business Management, Heriot-Watt University also advocated greater interaction with employers and he is looking for opportunities for students to conduct applied research in the rail freight sector. The project could look at anything including price sensitivity/technology/feasibility of new processes and employers will benefit from the results and recommendations of an independent short-term research project (3-4 months).

RFG would like to thank all the speakers for their interesting presentations and the team at Progress Rail for making everyone feel so welcome at their South Queensferry facility and helping us run the conference in their Media Room.