Rail freight opportunities for Scotland’s green ports

Manufacturing at Nigg (Opportunity Cromarty Firth)

While the UK government in London has already designated a list of location as ‘freeports’, there are as yet none in Scotland. The government in Edinburgh is reworking the legislation. They want the concept to better reflect the carbon-free economic agenda north of the border. Would-be Scottish applicants are waiting for the terms of Scotland’s ‘green port’ legislation to be published. However, that has not stopped several consortia announcing their intentions, with the majority including a degree of rail freight in their proposals.

The UK government in London has already conducted a competitive process, in order to establish a raft of ‘freeports’ around England. The exercise is intended to be a cornerstone of the government’s ‘levelling up’ agenda – the process of balancing the national economy so that more investment is made in the disadvantaged parts of the country – principally the North of England. It is also designed to help answer existing legislation which calls for a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. Rail freight has therefore played a significant part in the process, and all the successful freeport locations lead with rail-based logistics.

In an effort to spread the economic benefits of the free-trade concept, the Scottish government is significantly adjusting the freeport legislation. Scotland’s landscape is generally less heavily populated than England, and the economic priorities are different. Ministers in Edinburgh are therefore acutely aware that environmental issues will have a higher priority in Scotland. “Our green port model for Scotland adapts the UK government’s freeport model to fit the Scottish context”, says their statement.

Rural and post industrial considerations

Scotland’s rail freight network has been radically reduced in the decades since the rationalisation of the 1960s, particularly in the less-populated rural areas, such as North East Scotland and the Scottish Borders. Even in the heavily-populated Central Belt, including the cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, a significant proportion of rail infrastructure has been lost in more recent years, as heavy industry has declined (such as the steel industry in Lanarkshire) and coal mining has ceased (affecting areas like Fife, Midlothian and Ayrshire).

The Scottish Government has outlined wide criteria for the establishment of a green port, including consideration of rail facilities

Paradoxically, it is these areas – rural communities and former centres of heavy industry – that have suffered the most from economic decline. They stand to benefit most from ‘green port’ designation. However, the demise of rail freight infrastructure makes it more difficult to establish sustainable industrial development, without an over-reliance on road-based logistics. That has been part of the problem for Holyrood politicians, and part of the frustration for would-be green port consortia.

No agreement between Edinburgh and London

In a statement from Holyrood, the government said it was yet to reach agreement with its counterparts in London. “The Scottish Government is committed to the publication of a full Applicant Prospectus and launch of a selection process for the designation of green ports in Scotland as soon as possible”, they say. “We want to work in partnership with the UK Government on this matter. However, the UK Government has not yet agreed the terms of the draft Applicant Prospectus.”

The extended delay in publishing a full prospectus for Scottish green ports has not however stopped a cohort of would-be applicants expressing their interest. The most recent has been a bid from the south west of Scotland, led by the local authority for the area, Dumfries and Galloway Council. Rob Davidson, who represents the council’s economy and resources committee, was enthusiastic about the proposal. “I believe we have a strong bid, notably in terms of private sector support,” he said. “There are also many wider benefits for Dumfries and Galloway as a whole.”

Competitive selection process

The Dumfries and Galloway bid would however be the one with the least recognisable opportunities for rail freight. The ferry port upon which the bid is centered, is not served by rail, and the former ferry port location – Stranraer – which is all but abandoned despite its rail connection, is not included. Furthermore, the railway line connecting the region with the West Coast Main Line was abandoned in 1965. “The Scottish Government is now seeking to gauge the level of interest by inviting potential applicants, including multi–applicant partnerships, to note their interest in participating in a competitive green port selection process”, said a statement from Edinburgh.

The Tilbury Freeport covers a wide area in the east of London, which undoubtedly has influenced the Scottish government criteria (UK Government graphic)

Elsewhere, many potential bids have a rail freight advantage. Edinburgh (Port of Leith) may have a moribund network within the quayside, but the owners, Forth Ports, have paired their bid with their property at Grangemouth on the same river, where the intermodal terminal was recently upgraded. Fort Ports already have a freeport under their belt, with a successful bid at Tilbury in London. There is also a city region bid expected from Aberdeen, where the port owners announced recently plans for major expansion, with rail playing a part. That bid would also included the city’s airport, and the nearby port of Peterhead, where campaigners hope to see rail services reintroduced.

Encourage rail freight investment

Possibly most deserving of an economic break is a bid by Dundee. That may well be led by Michelin Scotland Innovation Parc (MSIP), with the backing of Dundee City Council and Port of Dundee owner, who are also Forth Ports. However, rail freight opportunities are limited due to extensive redevelopment of the former riverside facilities, but proximity to the East Coast Main Line may encourage investment in a modern terminal.

Rail freight facilities serving existing (north) and planned (south) harbours set out by Aberdeen Harbour Board

Perhaps the most ambitious potential green port interest comes from Opportunity Cromarty Firth – a consortium in the far north of Scotland, that includes the Cromarty Firth Port Authority and Global Energy Group, owner of the Port of Nigg. “We can confirm we have submitted an expression of interest to the Scottish Government to become a green port”, said their statement. “We believe Opportunity Cromarty Firth would create a sustainable fifty-year pipeline of opportunities in the Highlands.” Investment in the line north from Inverness may be already on the agenda with the Scottish government. Timber traffic trials took place in the past twelve months, and the area has much potential in the offshore renewable energy sector.

Transition to net-zero

There are offshore bids expected from the islands in Orkney and Shetland, and a local bid from the east coast town of Montrose. A city-region bid is expected from Glasgow too.

“The model has been designed to apply effectively to areas with seaports, airports and rail ports”, said a government statement. “Every mode of port is welcome to make an application or form part of an application coalition. Green ports aim to support innovation, boost exports and attract inward investment, all underpinned by a commitment to the vital principles of fair work and a just transition to a net zero economy.”

Author: Simon Walton

Simon Walton is RailFreight's UK correspondent.

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