For several, opportunity for rail freight is an integral and important part of creating a focal point for attracting this investment and to influence decisions on where companies choose to do business.
The advantages of Green Freeports will add another variable for companies to consider how they structure their supply chains and perhaps where they locate critical activities like import centres, manufacturing or high value technical capabilities. Freight is often complex in the detail of its delivery, but the logic of its actions is simple to understand, if typically unseen; to strike the optimum balance between meeting service level and customer demand in the most cost-efficient way, within a hugely competitive sector. This can result in high levels of agility to change the way supply chains work, sometimes in radical ways.
We’ve seen the impact on freight movements of companies recalculating their optimum routes to market in response to changes in the global shipping market and our changed relationship with the EU. The impact on time and cost calculations of getting across the Dover straits has nudged some import and export freight to use short sea services calling at ports further north, providing increased opportunity to connect to Scotland by rail freight services run over shorter distances. In August the first arrival of a direct Scotland–China shipping service will happen which may be carrying freight that previously moved to and from Scotland by rail freight. But for traffic potentially lost, other traffic is gained with major shipping line MSC committing further to inland intermodal freight and recently announcing another daily intermodal connection to Scotland connecting via the Midlands to Felixstowe and London Gateway.
For the successful Green Freeport locations whose offering has a rail freight component, and Rail Freight Group members are partners in three, Scottish Government and Network Rail may meet new demands and be faced with new choices. Will the status change the patterns of rail freight movements long term to these locations, and how? Should they benefit from any investment priorities for connecting infrastructure, but outside of their immediate zones? What if achieving a commitment to Net Zero at a Green Freeport has a dependency on being connected to an electrified rail network to use electric freight trains for example. And how will rail freight operators, customers and facilities not in a Green Freeport zone be assured of fair consideration when determinising where money is directed?
Green Freeports will undoubtably provide new opportunities and incentives for companies to integrate rail freight and decarbonise their supply chains further and this must be a good thing. The important thing policymakers need to appreciate is that they won’t sit in isolation. There needs to be a preparedness to accommodate the consequences, intended or otherwise.
Martin Bignell, Scottish and Northern Representative, Rail Freight Group