For all their faults, you can’t deny that the Labour governments of the early Scottish Parliament were better at rail policy than the SNP have been. The rebuilding of the vital link between Bathgate and Glasgow, Larkhall to Motherwell and the Borders railway were all projects that achieved critical mass in those first sessions. Even the Edinburgh trams, conceived with the best of intentions but executed with the worst incompetency and lack of enthusiasm, will turn out to be a wise investment in the long term.
The SNP on the other hand seem intent on standing in the way of rail and sustainable mass transit at every turn. The Edinburgh-Glasgow line via Falkirk was all set to be a benchmark for the rest of the Scottish rail network until Keith Brown’s department realised just how much money they would need to carry out economically dubious projects such as the doubling of the entire A9.
Today the self-interested people-hating rail lobby in Scotland, concerned only with giving people better and cheaper public transport and blind to the real issues facing hardworking people such as the lack of a slip road and city-centre parking charges, Transform Scotland have nailed their colours to the mast in a broadside on the SNP government.
Transform Scotland have essentially produced a wish list or projects that need funded, with an emphasis on schemes that would lead to carbon reductions, better connectivity for peripheral areas and nullify the arguments for hugely expensive road projects. Rather than repeat what they have said I’ve compiled my own list to send to Keith Brown.
1) Electrify the Highland Main Line from Inverness to Perth and build a new section from Perth to Inverkeithing:
At the moment a lot of the safety issues on the A9 are caused by lorries that could easily transfer to rail. Electric trains climb hills quicker and rebuilding sections of double track that previously existed with a few additions would be much cheaper than the scheme to double in size the trunk road. This is a model employed in Sweden where existing transport corridors have been used to minimise impact on land and where the train is visibly faster than the cars alongside. As for the ‘new’ section, that would just be a new variation of an old railway closed in the 1960s.
2) Stop building car parks and extend the Glasgow Subway above ground.
To say Glasgow’s public transport is dysfunctional is an understatement. Useless private owner buses and three different ticket systems for the buses, subway and the big trains. The East End of Glasgow is undeveloped enough that it would be easy to extend the Subway above ground. There are a couple of different scenarios for this, but the most sensible would probably be a line running from between Buchanan Street and St Enoch that surfaced between High Street and the river, then ran out to the public transport voids of Easterhouse, Baillieston and the sports village. The Docklands Light Railway in London is an example of how this can be done relatively cheaply. It would provide a direct connection between the East End and West End, enlarging the city centre and reducing reliance in poor bus services.
3) Mutualise the buses.
Edinburgh has the best buses in Scotland, and with the exception perhaps of the heavily subsidised London network, the best in Britain. The simple reason for this is that it is owned, though not run, by the council and reinvests any profit into the service. People from Glasgow and Aberdeen wonder at the relative quality of an Edinburgh bus. In the long term Edinburgh should look to integrate trams, buses and Edinburgh Crossrail into one unit with the same tickets.
4) Intercity trains
If you’ve taken an intercity train in Scotland you’ll probably have clocked that they are much the same as short distance trains. Whether you travel from Aberdeen to Glasgow or Glasgow to Gartcosh it will be on the same sort of train. They were originally developed for commuters in the South-East and English midlands, being an off-the-shelf model when Firstgroup opted for them. This means that for things like catering and luggage space they are unsuited to trans-Scotland work. Given the varying numbers between summer and winter in Scotland, it would make sense to invest in German-style push-pull trains where coaches can be added without having to keep whole trains on standby at great expense. This could also mean more room for bikes, buggies and even parcels, as well as allowing the same coaches to be used on electric and non-electric parts of the network. Aberdeen to Dumfries direct anyone?
5) Fares you can afford
A few years ago the SSP, in a fit of utopian hubris and with a lack of understanding of how the economics of public transport works, came up with the idea of all public transport in Scotland being free. Fundamentally, railways and buses cost money to run and it would be obtuse for someone with little need to travel to be paying for someone who regularly had to commute from Aberdeen to Ayr in the name of solidarity. The levels of subsidy it would require would also remove capital from investment budgets just to keep the wheels rolling. Although fractionally greener, it makes as much sense as giving out free petrol but not mending any of the roads.
A better system, which could make full use of the half-baked Scotland smartcard the SNP have come up with, would be to offer people incremental gains on their journeys by giving them both affordable startup fares and air-miles style points. This might mean that the last quarter of the year on your Glasgow public transport would end up being free or the application of a 25 per cent discount on all fares, increasing to 50 or 75 after certain amounts of usage. Instead of looking at journeys as finite events it rewards behaviour over time and means that there is always an incentive to take the train or bus.
6) Connect the cities to their surrounding areas.
Pioneered in Germany, tram trains use a combination of street running and old railway lines to construct low-cost ways of getting from rural areas into medium sized cities. A city like Aberdeen could potentially benefit from tram trains to places like Banchory and Ellon. They are quicker and more reliable than buses and can potentially connect forgotten towns directly to the national rail network without having to get on a bus.
7) Direct trains from the Far North to Edinburgh.
At the moment getting from the Far North to the capital is a hassle. Given that it is potentially only a six hour journey by rail, there is a case to be made for night trains to Edinburgh that mean people from Orkney, Caithness and Sutherland can be in Edinburgh for breakfast. Long term aspirations to decentralise and repopulate Highland Scotland means that innovative approaches to moving people around are needed.
When the channel tunnel was built Scotland was promised a passport to the continent, but the plans were quickly shelved. If climate targets are to be met and capacity problems addressed at Scotland’s airports, it is time the Scottish and European capitals were connected. This could even mean European subsidy for the project as part of the commitment to improving and maintaining European transport networks. Sadly, Scotland is considered as part of the UK at present and is expected to magically utilise the concentration of European connections in London.
9) Insist on standards of cycle infrastructure for all new roads.
We’ll always need roads, just perhaps not motorways. At the moment new roads are built without any requirement to make them suitable for cyclists. Simple legislation on separate cycle lanes would mean that any road ‘improvements’ would have to improve it for cyclists and walkers as well as motorists. The most ambitious policy in the world on this is Hamburg’s which has vowed to incrementally improve its infrastructure until the city centre is car free and cycleways are the primary arteries for short distance transport.
10) Replace Keith Brown with Alison Johnstone
This is as simple as it sounds. Out goes a transport minister who likes spending a lot of public money on roads most of the public will not use, in comes a woman with a vision for how transport can be made cheaper and more accessible for everyone.