PLANS to increase the amount of freight on the far north line could get a long-awaited boost following a trial run next summer.
The opening of a £3.1 million railhead at Georgemas in 2012 to accommodate nuclear loads from Dounreay to Sellafield had raised prospects of a regeneration of other commercial loads being carried on the line between Caithness and Inverness.
Efforts so far have stalled but Direct Rail Services commercial director Chris Connelly told a meeting of the Dounreay Stakeholder Group (DSG) about the trial run for Tesco.
Mr Connelly hopes the run will show that it is practical to transfer the supermarket goods to the far north by rail. At present, Tesco hauls by rail to Inverness but then by road to its stores in Wick and Thurso.
“I would be disappointed if the trial does not happen in six months’ time.
“We would hope it will show it is functional and then attract the volumes we need,” Mr Connelly said.
The goods would be taken to the Georgemas terminal, unloaded there and transported to Wick and Thurso by road.
He hopes the trial will encourage more commercial freight opportunities on the line.
Mr Connelly said Tesco is “very serious” about reducing its carbon footprint to zero by 2050 and transferring its goods by rail would help the food chain achieve that target.
He acknowledged there are challenges ahead but said the company will do all it can to ensure it attracts the volumes required to make it a success.
Mr Connelly was asked about the problems with the far north line which is a single track route with passing places.
A member of the audience pointed out there have been issues with the network and difficulties regards reliability.
Roy Kirk, the Thurso-based Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s area manager for Caithness and Sutherland, wondered about road access issues.
He also asked what would happen if the volume of freight on the line is not sufficient though he hoped that would not be the case.
It was also pointed that the new stretches of dual carriageway opening up on the A9 between Perth and Inverness make it all the more harder for rail freight to compete.
Mr Connelly said talks are taking place with Abellio, which operates the rail network, and Transport Scotland regarding investment to promote more rail freight. He claimed road haulage companies make more money on short deliveries than on long haul orders.
Mr Connelly explained that DRS – a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – transfers nuclear material from Dounreay and the Ministry of Defence.
It has a contract which will last until the 2020s but its lease of the facility at Georgemas runs until 2032, he said.
Cumbria-based DRS was established in 1995 to supply transport and associated services to the nuclear industry.
It has a current turnover of around £75 million a year and employs more than 400 staff. While DRS continues to support the nuclear decommissioning activities of its parent company, it has successfully extended its service offerings to “new and exciting rail market sectors,” added Mr Connelly.
The raihead at Georgemas, which features a 13-metre-high gantry, has the capacity to carry 110 tonnes. When it opened in July 2012, DRS said it was touting for trade with other industries but it has only been used to service the spent-fuel consignments from Dounreay.