Supporters of the West Highland Line – which includes the iconic Glenfinnan Viaduct used in the Harry Potter movies – fear the last remaining rail freight service may soon be lost.
Alvance Aluminium a member of businessman Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance, recently announced a £94 million investment in a new recycling and casting facility at its Fort William smelter that will almost double production to 80,000 tonnes a year.
To support the development, the company is proposing significant upgrades to the port at Corpach to improve efficiency of material flow.
Freight is currently hauled by class 66 locomotives from North Blyth, where bauxite used to make aluminium is shipped in from countries such as Jamaica, West Africa, Australia and South America, to Corpach by rail, including via the West Highland Line.
The end product, including aluminium ingots, is then exported from the plant by rail.
The proposal by Alvance to upgrade Corpach Pier has concerned the Friends of the West Highland Line organisation, who fear Alvance will replace transportation of freight via sea rather than rail.
Doug Carmichael, of the friends group, said: “If this rail contract service ends then it will be the last freight service on the line.
“Freight transportation was such an important part of the history of the area, given it was once the site of a giant paper mill which used the rail line.”
He said the establishment of the aluminium factory had been a major factor in the Scottish Government from considering closing the West Highland Line, which links the West Highlands with Glasgow – where there are connections with trains to the rest of Britain.
ScotRail currently operates passenger services along the line, which includes crossing the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct.
There is also an overnight Caledonian Sleeper linking Fort William and intermediate West Highland stations with London.
Mr Carmichael has called on the Scottish Government to carry out a review, similar to a recent one between Inverness and Caithness, on transporting timber by rail rather than road, in a bid to increase the amount of freight running on the West Highland Line.
A GFG Alliance spokesman said: “Following the announcement of our new investment plan in November, we are evaluating future freight transport plans in and out of the Lochaber site.
“Members of the community will be consulted on our plans, including the development of port facilities, in the first half of the year.”
A spokesman for government agency Transport Scotland said they were “currently evaluating the lessons learned” from the Caithness timber trial, but added: “There are currently no plans for a trial on the West Highland Line.
“Whilst the decision to use rail freight is a commercial matter for the freight service provider and customer, we welcome all interest in modal shift to rail and are happy to discuss opportunities to move goods by rail with all interested parties.
“The 2019 Programme for Government committed to review the services on the West Highland rail corridor and find opportunities for improvement and to integrate rail services with other transport modes as well as active travel.
“Given the on-going efforts in relation to Covid-19, the evidence gathered through the West Highland Line Review Group will be reviewed as part of the second Strategic Transport Projects Review.”
He added that the West Highland Line was “on the list of potential options for further detailed appraisal” likely to commence this month.
GB Railfreight who currently operate the smelter contract was contacted for comment.