Why we must protect former railway routes
David Spaven on maximising opportunities to move from truck to train
Rail’s great strength is its ability to move large quantities of freight safely, swiftly and sustainably: the end product of low-friction, steel-wheel-on-steel-rail technology, operating over a segregated route network. But that segregation inevitably means that rail is less ubiquitous than its road haulage competitor, with public roads serving virtually every site across Scotland which generates freight traffic.
In contrast, at present, only a handful of mining/manufacturing/processing sites in Scotland are directly rail-connected – good examples being open-cast coal mines, Hunterston port, the cement works at Dunbar, the Dalzell steel plant, the oil refinery at Grangemouth and the Fort William aluminium smelter. But coal industry – which traditionally supplied the key freight traffic on the railways – is in substantial decline, and the rail industry urgently needs to find new business.
In practice, much of the traffic potential to help fill the gap left by coal will lie in the domestic intermodal sector, where containers are trunked by rail over the long haul, but typically need collection and delivery by road.
However, eliminating a lorry leg at the start or end of the rail transit can help to transform rail economics and win more traffic back from long-distance road haulage. Protecting the possibility of gaining or regaining direct rail access to major industrial sites should therefore be at the heart of a long-term strategy for rail.
The Scottish Government’s rail freight strategy, Delivering the Goods, published in 2016, acknowledged the scope for considering how “[Local] development plans [LDPS] could be further improved to identify key opportunities and optimise investment potential in rail freight.” In practice, LDPS are much influenced by the Scottish Government’s guidance in its national planning policies: these featuring strongly in both the initial creation of the LDPS and in any subsequent planning appeals.
Back in the 1990s, guidance on rail freight was strong and specific, requiring planning authorities to identify sites adjacent to existing operational or disused infrastructure which were capable of being developed for uses requiring rail or waterborne freight access, and to safeguard these, through the LDPS, for manufacturing, processing or transshipment developments with potential to use rail or water freight.
Today, however, the guidance is weaker and does not mention rail freight specifically, stating little more than: “Disused railway lines with a reasonable prospect of being reused as rail, tram, bus rapid transit or active travel routes should be safeguarded in development plans.”
Within the railway estate, the rail industry can and does take its own steps to protect land from inappropriate development. Since privatisation, there has been a designated list of Strategic Freight Sites (sites where there are no current rail freight activities but which are deemed to have freight potential) which benefit from strategic protection. This list, which is currently being updated by Netthe