Scottish ministers get to the point

In all the furore over the Department for Transport’s electrification plans, or lack thereof, it was easy to overlook the other important documents which were published on the same day. These included the Secretary of State’s High Level Output Specification (HLOS), which was largely content free, revised Government Guidance to the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), which was generally helpful, and ORR’s consultation on Network Rail’s efficiency, which is certainly worth a read.

In Scotland, ministers also issued a HLOS, which applies to the devolved railway. As you can read in ‘Informed Sources’ this month, the Scottish document was somewhat different in tone and content to its southern counterpart. For a start, it was distinctly more positive, and for freight gives a strong framework to support industry and Government efforts on growth. The commitments build on the Scottish rail freight strategy that was published early last year, and on the work of the Freight Joint Board, on which RFG is represented.

The Scottish Government has understood that, in a devolved Network Rail, the geographic Routes have an instrumental role to play in growing freight and that the incentives and requirements they face should reflect this. This does not seek to undermine the Freight and National Passenger Operators Route, or the System Operator, but recognises that without alignment of freight objectives, the devolved Routes are under no obligation to deliver the necessary outcomes. We have been pressing for this to be part of Network Rail’s governance, and it is particularly welcome to see it reflected here (indeed, it could well be a model for across the business).

Specifically therefore, Network Rail Scotland will be required to:

■ develop a freight journey time metric and to increase the average speed of freight trains by not less than 10% through good operational practices and through collaboration with freight operators and customers;

■ improve freight performance to 94.5% (as measured by the freight delivery metric) by the end of Control Period 6 (2019-24);

■ take all reasonable steps to facilitate growth of 7.5% in rail freight traffic;

■ ensure that during engineering work at least one cross-border route remains open and available for freight use.

It is, however, on gauge where the ministers’ document gets really interesting. There has been long-held frustration with Network Rail’s inability to manage loading gauge consistently, to keep the network to the correct standard and quickly and efficiently to determine clearance for new and modified vehicles. High profile cases such as Flying Scotsman have raised the political stakes too. Our experience on freight gauge across the country is that despite the best efforts of some, the situation remains challenging across the network, and is arguably worse now than some years ago.

The Scottish HLOS therefore contains an entire section on this area, specifying in detail the gauge outcomes it expects to be met. This includes a requirement to maintain the gauge to the published capability, including for all rolling stock which have been in operation in Scotland in recent years. This is of course a regulatory requirement and should not need to be re-emphasised, but it is clear it is not being achieved everywhere. Network Rail is asked to prepare for this with a gauging strategy available by the start of CP6. Perhaps most importantly, Network Rail is specifically asked to ensure that gauge does not suffer during maintenance and renewals, and clarifies that the costs of any remedial work must not be passed onto customers.

The challenge now will be to make sure the requirements set out in the document are included in the ORR’s Final Determination due next year. There is of course some risk that Network Rail will consider that the cost of achieving the work is unaffordable in the current constrained funding situation, and ask for requirements to be amended. If so, that must be challenged, particularly considering the costs that fall to operators and customers through these inefficiencies.

The rail freight market in Scotland can be difficult to crack, particularly north of the central belt, but there is no shortage of opportunity. This HLOS, along with the rail freight strategy, provides a real chance to develop the innovative solutions to those market challenges, and attract new customers to rail. We are greatly encouraged by the approach of the Scottish Government, demonstrating how devolution, if correctly approached, can aim to work for all users.

An opinion column of the Rail Freight Group,

West Highland freight: one freight service north of the central belt with an uncertain future is the flow of alumina from North Blyth to Fort William. The new owner of the aluminium works at Fort William is exploring the possibility of bringing the alumina into Fort William by ship, and if that was to happen this freight service currently using the West Highland line would end; if the fuel workings from Grangemouth also stop, there would then be no freight at all using the West Highland line. On 18 July, the 06.25 North Blyth to Fort William loaded Alcan tanks pass through Breich station on the Edinburgh – Glasgow via Shotts line behind No 66733.
Ian Lothian