A modest Scottish rail freight terminal is an industry pathfinder
It may only make a ripple in national rail freight terms, but the Highland Spring rail terminal, on the edge of the Scottish Highlands, could open the tap on a flood of freight developments. It has taken a while for the famous mineral water bottling company to get their rail terminal flowing and to get every stakeholder onside, but the company is finally reaping the benefits. Now, it’s up to the industry to follow suit.
In a testament to Scotland’s commitment to sustainable industry practices, Highland Spring, the iconic mineral water company based in Blackford, Perthshire, has scooped an award for its rail freight terminal. It’s not the biggest installation in Scotland, but it could open the floodgates for many more like it. The company’s freight and logistics achievement has been applauded across the UK. If success can be bottled, then Highland Spring seem to have mastered the process. The only question might be where next for a new rail freight development.
Proof of concept and potential
In the densely populated parts of the British Isles, there really is no shortage of rail freight terminals on the ground or on the drawing board. In the rather more sparsely populated surroundings of the Ochil Hills on the edge of the wilderness of the Scottish Highlands, the rails are rather less in evidence. Unless you find yourself in the picturesque village of Blackford in Perthshire. It’s there that the new Highland Spring rail freight facility has become something of a standard for other commercial enterprises looking closely at embracing rail.
The brand, familiar to everyone who prefers a bottled source of water on their table, may be better known for their brands than their trains. However, within the rail freight sector, Highland Spring is synonymous with their modest terminal and the backdrop of the Scottish mountains as proof of concept and proof of the modern potential for rail freight, even in such a rural setting. Businesses around Scotland, particularly in the further-flung parts of the nation and situated near the Scottish network, are reassessing the potential for going with the flow begun by the mineral water pioneers.
New era of sustainable transport
Officially launched in August 2022, Highland Spring’s Blackford rail freight facility is a landmark project, representing Scotland’s first dedicated rail terminal to open in over a decade. For those in support of the project, it heralds a new era of sustainable transport, enabling Highland Spring to efficiently move goods from production sites in Scotland to external warehousing in England, and potentially elsewhere. Already, it effectively takes 8,000 heavy goods vehicles off the roads annually, leading to a reduction of over 3,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions each year. These are all figures that are making ever-better sense to businesses in similar situations, eyeing up the possibility of adding or reactivating a rail connection for a convenient intermodal connection.
Since its operational commencement in January 2023, the Highland Spring facility, in partnership with another well-known Scottish name – logistics haulier John G Russell Transport – has seen six trains depart weekly, carrying approximately forty per cent of their finished products to customers. That high intensity use is an integral part of the company’s broader sustainability strategy, aiming to achieve net-zero emissions by 2040.
Communication with the local community
“At a critical point for the climate, we carefully consider every step in our product’s journey”, said Morwen Mands, Head of Sustainability at Highland Spring. She has been involved over the lengthy gestation of the project, and is well aware of the significant effort it has taken to turn the tide on rail freight ambitions. She underscored the critical importance of this project within the context of global climate concerns. “We continue to innovate to reduce our environmental impact across every part of our business.” The success of the initiative has been built upon collaboration between businesses and government, demonstrating what is possible for rail freight in Scotland. That’s been held up as an example across the UK.
The facility’s design is sympathetic to the village setting and rural location – an important factor for so much of Scotland. Having a main line railway pass alongside the boundary of the bottling plant was helpful as well, but there are manufacturers and producers across Scotland, who are in similar locations, looking closely at the success in Blackford. Careful design has ensured minimal noise and visual impact on the surrounding area, although some concerns were raised at time of the installation of the loading crane which sits over the two tracks of the terminal.
The company has maintained open channels of communication with the local community throughout the project’s lifecycle. Community legacy projects have included the creation of a communal fruit orchard, and the upgrade of footpaths. Highland Spring’s rail freight terminal, recognised at national level, is also something that has become part of the community. For rail freight in general, that’s a positive environmental impact for generations to come. Who’s next?