Keeping on track

Written by on 6 November 2013 in Feature

Rail use is at its highest level since the 1920s but transport campaigners still want more ambition

The small town of Laurencekirk near Aberdeen was just one of the towns across Scotland to lose its railway station under Dr Beeching’s purge of the transport network in the 1960s.

By any standard when, after years of campaigning and political debate, the station reopened 42 years later, it was a success.

In its first full year of operation in 2010, it had seen nearly 64,000 journeys – completely outstripping the predicted 36,000.

The success was not a fluke, with similar popularity for other new station openings in recent years, such as the Stirling to Alloa line or Bathgate to Airdrie.

While this showed the appetite among travellers to get on a train, it also showed transport campaigners more could be achieved.

Paul Tetlaw, a director of Transform Scotland and committee member of Capital Rail Action Group, told Holyrood there was a “huge suppressed demand” for rail which he and others want to see more action to unlock.

The railways in Scotland are at an important juncture. Rail use is at its highest point in years and has increased from 57.4 million passengers to 83.3 million in the last decade.

The new ScotRail franchise is due to be renewed in 2015, while the East Coast mainline currently in public ownership is due to be re-privatised and the next five year control period for Network Rail is also due to start.

In addition, flagship projects such as the £300m Borders Railway project to re-establish services from Edinburgh through Midlothian to Tweedbank for the first time since 1969 are under way, as is the Edinburgh to Glasgow Improvement Programme, which will include electrifying the network between the two largest cities.

Speaking at a public Q&A in Inverness in 2008, Alex Salmond, just a year into his new role as First Minister, empathised with a 100-strong crowd, who wanted to know what his SNP government would do to improve transport links.

He said: “As an MP for the north-east of Scotland for 21 years, I have lost count of the number of times I have set off for Edinburgh with the intention of going to Aberdeen station to catch a train, only to get to Aberdeen and realise that it was going to be quicker to carry on in the car.

“Railway must at least compete with roads.”

It is that claim that Transform Scotland has challenged, claiming that with investment in road projects like the dualling of the A9, and the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, the emphasis has been to build new roads.
Tetlaw said: “To my mind, the big area of suppressed demand we’re lacking in ambition and failing to bring forward comparative plans for the railway, to those we have for roads, is the routes north of the central belt – to Inverness and Aberdeen and between Inverness and Aberdeen.”

He added: “On the Inverness route, you’ve basically got a slimmed down Victorian railway, if you look at the signalling, it has old style semaphore signals – what place have they got on a modern railway. It belongs on a heritage railway and it tells you something about the lack of investment on those routes.”

The journey of 130 miles between Edinburgh and Aberdeen takes two hours 20 minutes, by comparison, the 124 miles from Edinburgh to Newcastle takes just one hour 30 minutes.

Tetlaw adds: “The Government has huge ambition for Scottish cities. There should be a twin-track railway connecting those cities and it should be electrified if the railway is going to compete with the roads to offer people a choice.
“If people perceive one is less attractive than the other then the choice is easily made.”

The Highland Main Line Rail Improvements Project aims to reduce journey times between Inverness and Perth and provide better links from Inverness to the central belt. When complete, it aims to provide an hourly service and cut journey times by 35 minutes.

Phase one of the project was delivered in December last year, costing £1.2m and reducing journey times by up to 18 minutes.

Richard Ardern, a former convener of Friends of the Far North Line, said that the average speed for southbound trains is only between one and two minutes faster to Edinburgh and Glasgow and up to nine minutes faster on northbound journeys.

Transform Scotland, which is an alliance of bodies devoted to sustainable transport – including green campaign groups and major public transports operators – questioned Transport Scotland via a freedom of information request if the First Minister’s promise of ‘rail over road’ was still the case.

It said it was and added rail was an “efficient and sustainable transport system is one of the key enablers for delivering the Government’s purpose of increasing sustainable economic growth in a low carbon economy”.

The response added that since 2007, £2.6bn had been invested in the trunk road network and over £4bn in rail, in addition, it said there had been 14 rail-related projects in the Strategic Transport Projects Review and eight related to road.

But Tetlaw says these figures fail to take into account maintenance and revenue spending on roads – which would take the total to a far higher amount, and that rail spending comes from Network Rail borrowing rather than from capital expenditure.

Transport Minister Keith Brown maintains that rail travel is a “huge priority” and says that the new ScotRail service due for renewal is the biggest contract in Scottish Government procurement, with the sleeper service that has now been separated out, the fifth highest.

“We always have to remember the extent to which over the decades there has been a lack of investment in railways in Scotland. I think the priority we attach to rail is exemplified by the investment we’ve put into it.”

But he added: “I think it’s no secret that Transform Scotland and I have different views on the need for road investment.

Most modern countries would expect their countries to be connected by a dual carriageway or motorway, we don’t have that in Scotland and we should. I think there’s an extent to which we’re catching up on these things.”

He added: “There is a need to invest in roads – they carry buses, public transport, they will carry trams shortly and they carry cyclists as well – it is not just a case of serving the car.”

And the minister said the Government was making improvements to services north of the central belt, which would continue into the next Network Rail control period.

Both he and Transform Scotland agree on the need to electrify the network. Brown said the current plans for EGIP were to electrify the network up to Dunblane and then 100km per year after that.

“The same thing applies, if you look at some of the constraints, they are ones that have been there for decades and have not been addressed.

“Obviously when you have that lack of investment over many years in railways and British Rail had such a tightly constrained investment capability by the Treasury that you just didn’t get investment – I think we’re starting to see change.

“If it wasn’t happening then you wouldn’t see these continued rises in passengers and patronage.”

In addition, he said fare rises across the board in Scotland had been lower than elsewhere in the UK – with the highest rise 3.5 per cent compared to more than 6 per cent south of the border.

Tetlaw believes that there will be more movement from the Government under pressure from campaigners on electrification and said: “That would make huge benefits on these routes further north because they are quite hilly and electric trains climb hills just the same as they do on the flat. There will be improvements to journey times because they can climb hills faster and acceleration away from stops is so much quicker – there is a double win.”

By far the most high-profile rail project currently is one not even instigated in Scotland – high speed rail.

While there has been opposition to HS2, Brown said there was not the same degree of hostility north of the border and although the costs have risen to an estimated £42.6bn, bringing the line all the way to Scotland would justify the higher costs.

Transport Scotland has created a partnership group in Scotland, which includes Transform Scotland as well as the CBI, Scottish Chambers of Commerce and councils.

While Brown said the Scottish Government had been consistent in saying the big dividends will only come if the scheme comes to Scotland, Tetlaw said there should also be work to improve those routes that would carry “compatible” trains from the high speed network.

But he added that, certainly for those travelling from Scotland to London, high speed rail could help people make the shift from air to rail.

Announced only this month, following discussions with Transport Scotland the UK Government has instructed HS2 to identify ways to investigate further rail capacity between northern England and Scotland for both passengers and freight, including an aim to cut journey times from Glasgow and Edinburgh to three hours or less under phase two of the project

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