You may have read a wee while back about the Scottish Government’s consultation on rail services in Scotland beyond 2014.
When launched, it made a few headlines because of eye-catching questions like whether alcohol should be banned from trains or whether the sleeper service and daytime cross-border journeys between the north of Scotland and England should continue. Instantly, campaigns began to “save” the sleeper services to the three northern destinations of Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William – those services to Glasgow and Edinburgh remaining safe because, so the suggestion went, as with most daytime services you could easily change trains in the central belt. Which, of course, is an argument for passengers changing at every station on their journey because it’s seemingly so easy, and trains only ever shunting backwards and forwards between two adjacent stops.
To be fair, it was only a consultation – and that’s the idea of consultations, to generate debate and get people’s views. But the recent announcement from George Osborne that he wants to put money towards preserving the sleepers (a clever piece of politics to catch out the Scottish Government, to which we can doubtless attribute the input of his right-hand man, the LibDem MP for Inverness, Danny Alexander) clearly shows up the SNP’s poor handling of the issue. And the fact that I admit the Tories have made the SNP look silly on an issue demonstrates my strength of feeling.
But despite only being a consultation, the document gave out poor messages by asking the questions the wrong way round – frequently it ponders whether things are still justifiable, when really the questions should be about what can be done to improve and expand the rail network in Scotland. And as a regular rail traveller in Scotland, boy is there much that can be done.
To give just one example, it asks whether the sleeper from Fort William should run from Oban instead. Instead? Where’s the ambition? Why not both?
But rather than go through the consultation document with an angry toothcomb, here instead are four broad areas that I reckon they should have asked questions about.
A quick glance at the effects of the Beeching Report shows that a huge number of lines in Scotland were scrapped. Many communities that were dependent on these lines never really recovered economically. Of course, Beeching was not the only time lines were cut, and many lines closed before and, I think, after. By reopening many of these lines, great cultural and economic benefit will be derived.
The Scottish Government gets this to a degree, as can be seen in the long-running efforts to get the Borders line reopened, but why not other ones too? What were the Moray Coast Railway (which forms the spectacular viaducts at Cullen), the Deeside Line and the Invergarry and Fort Augustus line are all spectacularly beautiful and would probably be as famous and as marketable in tourist terms if reopened as our other beautiful and well-known lines like those to Fort William or Kyle of Lochalsh. Meanwhile, other closed lines such as the Edinburgh suburban line or some of those lost in Glasgow could revolutionise transport in our two biggest cities.
I’ve blogged before about how Inverness could be better served by its lines, while it is astonishing that the cities of Aberdeen and Dundee only have one station each when both, particularly Aberdeen, are crying out for suburban halts to alleviate serious traffic congestion.
By adding stations, upgrading lines and improving services, the existing rail network can work much better, increasing its patronage and economic benefit.
3. Building new lines
There are plenty parts of the country where lines need building, and in most of the cases I can think of it is about connecting to other transport forms. The airport rail links are well-known: the SNP have ditched (or, to be slightly kinder, been forced to ditch by either parliamentary arithmetic or economic conditions) rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh airports, but Inverness, Dundee and Aberdeen airports (and for that matter Wick airport) are all a hair’s breadth away from railway lines and just small adjustments could connect them to the rail network. This will increase their use, encourage tourism, and benefit the local and national economies.
But let’s not forget other vital interchanges, such as those between ferries and rail. The southwest of Scotland has many, such as Gourock or Stranraer, but the north does not. Ullapool, for instance, is the ferry port for Stornoway and is only 30 miles from the Kyle line. Imagine getting off the ferry from Stornoway and being able to hop on a train to Inverness, Aberdeen, Glasgow or Edinburgh without having to change from a bus. Or take Scrabster – the main port for sailings to Orkney, just a couple of miles or so outside rail-served Thurso.
I could go on, but I’ll not labour the point: integrated transport, where all the different forms connect seamlessly, is what makes a good economy and provides convenience for both locals and tourists. Other countries do it easily. We, for some reason, fail depressingly. The consultation should address this.
4. Starting HSR from the north
We’ve heard a great deal in the high-speed rail debate about how it is important to extend the UK’s tiny network (currently just London to the channel tunnel) northwards. The UK government plans a line north to Birmingham which, it is proposed, will fork there and go on to Manchester and Leeds. Talk – but no more than that – is of the lines continuing to Glasgow and Edinburgh, but for me that’s the barest minimum acceptable for connecting the big cities of this island.
The high-speed network needs to go further than that and the Scottish Government should be consulting on whether it should start building high-speed rail from the north, and if so from what locations. They say Edinburgh would be just two and a half hours from London by high-speed rail, and so on that logic Aberdeen, Scotland’s third city and Europe’s oil capital, might be about an hour and a half to Edinburgh. Imagine, therefore, a four hour rail journey from Aberdeen to that great transport hub of London, or – with through trains that stop in London – overnight trips from Scotland to mainland European locations like Brussels, Paris or Amsterdam. This is the sort of vision that the Scottish Government should be inspiring us with.
So there you go – four areas of questioning that the rail consultation should have been exploring, four key areas of potential development for our rail network, and none hopefully particularly difficult to envisage or see the benefits in. That nobody – least of all our government – seems to be talking about them particularly loudly is depressing when connectivity within our country and with the rest of Europe is ever more important.
Of course, there’s the issue of money. All of the above would be several billions of pounds the Scottish Government simply does not have. Other spending priorities exist. But I’m not proposing that all of these are committed to – just perhaps some of them. A consultation doesn’t need to present fixed ideas (that’s the whole idea, isn’t it?) but to put ideas out for debate and consideration so that priorities can be shaped.
For all the SNP’s admirable talk – and action – of raising Scotland’s aspirations, of imagining the best for our country, they never quite seem to extend this vision to the railways.
But then again, no party does.