Let rail freight realise its Inter-city potential right across Scotland

The Rail Freight Group is backing the new Inter-City Express campaign for a substantial upgrade of the key inter-urban routes north of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Investment in track doubling, additional and longer loops, electrification and resignalling will benefit both passenger and freight trains – taking heavy traffic off the roads, and reaping the benefits of rail’s far superior performance on carbon emissions, energy efficiency, environmental impact and public safety.
A test case: the Perth-Inverness corridor
The Perth-Inverness corridor symbolises the threats and opportunities for rail freight. The Scottish Government has sanctioned a three-year 50mph speed limit trial for HGVs on single-carriageway sections of the A9 road, despite the fact that research undertaken for the A9 Safety Group (which includes the Freight Transport Association, Police Scotland and the Road Haulage Association) concluded that retaining the current 40 mph speed limit for HGVs “is the safest option”. HGVs above 7.5 tonnes are involved in 23% of all accidents on single carriageway sections of the road, yet typically only make up 7% of the traffic. 
Over the long haul from Central Scotland to Inverness, the increased speed limit on single-carriageway sections may allow lorry journey times to be cut sufficiently to achieve an out-and-back delivery in a single driver’s shift where this is not currently possible – and this is a competitive threat to existing freight on rail. 
Even now the competitive situation is unfair – virtually every train between Perth and Inverness has to spend time sitting in one or more crossing loops waiting for an oncoming train – because no less t4han two thirds of the 118-mile route is still single-track. Contrast the A9, where a lorry can make an uninterrupted journey from Central Scotland to Inverness on a road that was completely rebuilt in the 1980s.
Where is the level playingfield?
Over and above the short to medium term threat to existing rail freight traffic between Central Scotland and Inverness, the Government is planning full dualling of the A9, for a breathtaking price tag of £3 billion – while as-yet-unspecified upgrades to the Perth-Inverness railway are capped at just £600 million. The massive proposed investment in the A9 will transform the economics of road haulage – but what will it mean for freight on rail? The Scottish Government remains silent on this symbolic failure to treat rail and road fairly.
With a level playing field, rail freight could make a much bigger contribution to economic development, safety and climate change policy aims. The Perth-Inverness ‘Highland Main Line’ already handles some significant freight flows – cement, nuclear waste, oil, offshore oil pipes, and the daily Tesco train from Central Scotland to Inverness (which takes no less than 20 lorries off the A9 in each direction). 
Rail could carry far more supermarket traffic, as well as Highland exports – but little capacity is left on this largely single-track railway for additional freight and for the long-mooted hourly passenger train frequency.
As RFG’s Scottish Representative, David Spaven, says: ‘The great thing about radically upgrading the rail infrastructure north of the Central Belt is that freight transport would benefit enormously, as well as passengers. With a fit-for-purpose Perth-Inverness railway, for example, we could increase the number of daily freight trains from two to as many as eight in each direction. That’s the equivalent of more than 300 lorries off the A9 – every day.’
A fair deal for rail freight
With growing concerns about carbon emissions, rail freight stands out as superior to road haulage, consuming just one third of road equivalent energy. Freight on rail is also much safer than road, air pollution is lower, and shifting from truck to train offers an effective way to reduce the wear and tear which our roads suffer from freight traffic. A heavy lorry can impose literally thousands of times the damage to road surfaces caused by a car – and the evidence is clear to see on rutted lanes on key routes like the A9. Scotland has a massive backlog of road maintenance – with funds being prioritised for building new roads – yet more investment in rail could make a much bigger difference to the daily driving experience of motorists throughout the country.
Too much transport policy nowadays is politics-led rather than evidence-based, and this usually means that road gets priority over rail. It’s in everyone’s interests – including road hauliers – to get more freight on rail between Perth and Inverness, but the rail freight sector can only do so much in terms of improving its own efficiency when one hand is tied behind its back by Government policy.
If full dualling is good enough for the A9, then similar treatment should be good enough for the railway – providing a step-change in capacity and quality for both freight and passengers. In reaching its decision to dual the A9, the Government’s appraisal process was seriously flawed, as it did not examine cross-modal packages of road and rail investment to determine the optimum mix to meet policy objectives – and to provide best value for money for the taxpayer.
It’s time to let rail freight realise its true potential.