The Scottish Region heard a presentation in Aberdeen on 23 November from Councillor Martin Ford, Chairman of the North East Scotland Rail Freight Development Group. He recalled that the Group had been formed in 1999 when there was little freight on rail in NE Scotland, with only one active railfreight operator, a very restrictive loading gauge and major sectors wholly road-based. Road congestion was however growing, key industries were vulnerable to changes in the cost of road haulage, and earlier work by consultants Spaven McCrossan had identified a potential market - while concern for economic development pointed to the desirability of diversifying the availability of transport modes. The policy background in areas such as climate change was also conducive to a new initiative which could be taken forward in the closer partnership working between local authorities which was already being favoured by the Scottish Executive.
The Group was therefore created with a membership comprising Aberdeen City, Aberdeenshire and Moray Councils, railfreight operators and Railtrack to raise awareness of railfreight, championing the need for research and taking a strategic view of the options for its development. An early discovery was that due to limited clearances there was no scope for conveying on rail 2.6 metre-wide refrigerated swapbodies or the 9'6" maritime containers which were already rendering obsolete the previous 8'6" maximum size. Consultants Colin Buchanan & Sons reported in 2001 that with 37% of North-East hauliers interested in switching rail, a potential market was on offer of 1.5M trips per annum, the vast majority of them dependent on gauge enhancement. Buchanans also found that surprisingly few structures were inadequate and none actually foul for four standard types of container-wagon combination. In the 250 miles between the Central Scotland freight yard at Mossend and Elgin via Aberdeen only 18 structures offered less than adequate clearances, which could be secured by lowering or slewing the track at a cost of only £2.8M. Other consultants SDG in 2003 confirmed that with an 66% optimism bias that the benefit cost ratio might range from -3 for all scenarios to -6.5 for the best.
Signs that NESRFDG were getting somewhere came in April 2004 when SRA and Network Rail added Mossend-Elgin gauge enhancement to their single list of enhancements and Scottish Transport Minister Nicol Stephen awarded £0.5M to complete preparatory engineering works and finalise costings. Scott Wilson were now getting accurate measurements of clearances by means of a detailed survey and laser examination of the structures. They were also considering an extension from Elgin to Inverness, where the benefits were however more questionable since unlike on most of the Aberdeen-Elgin stretch the track had always been predominantly single so as many as seven structures in thirty-seven miles would require attention.
Gauge enhancement had always been seen as a means to an end in growing the market, not as an end in itself. The clearest sign that the market would respond had come with the commencement also in April 2004 of a daily railfreight service with new operator DRS hauling trains conventionally-sized swapbodies managed by Malcolms for Asda to Aberdeen, where the railfreight terminal was now being managed by road haulier A. R. R. Craib.
The Group's efforts had already received recognition in the freight category at the recent Scottish National Transport Awards. They were now hoping for an announcement in spring 2005 of funding so that the scheme could be implemented in possibly in parallel with provision of new facilities replacing Aberdeen's present outdated Guild Street terminal. Cllr Ford saw as the ingredients of the Group's success a strong measure of luck - how different the outcome would have been had locations been identified where structures would have to be rebuilt - and their preference for developing an evidential base rather than indulging in high-profile lobbying. They had provided an additive element of net benefit to the railway as a whole, and represented a good example of local authorities working together to lever in funding in an area where they possessed very few formal powers.
Report by John Yellowlees.
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