In it for the long haul

Written by Gemma Fraser on 19 November 2018 in Inside Politics

How low-carbon initiatives and major infrastructure projects will both play essential roles in keeping Scotland moving in the future

 

Image credit: The House

There’s nothing we enjoy more in this country than complaining about public transport, or the weather, or – even better – complaining about how the weather has affected public transport.

Let’s face it, we get a lot of opportunity to talk about this particular bugbear so it’s no wonder we’ve added it to our go-to list of small talk.

Every morning in winter when there’s a spell of prolonged bad weather, you hear the common complaints from commuters about how a tiny bit of snow causes the country to shut down, and how Scotland’s infrastructure cannot cope with any kind of adverse weather.

And although the endless moaning is almost as monotonous as the travel disruption itself, the fact is that the commuters aren’t wrong.

High winds cause train delays and cancellations, airports can come to a standstill due to fog, ice, high winds and thunderstorms. Heavy rain and flooding cause delays and cancellations to the rail network, while roads, particularly older ones with poor drainage, can also be closed as a result of flooding and fallen trees.

Snow just seems to bring every mode of transport to a standstill – unless you happen to own a snowmobile.

Even the sun can cause travel misery, with intense heat causing railway tracks to buckle.

So basically, a reliance on planes, trains and automobiles to get us from A to B needs to come hand in hand with an acceptance that things will, inevitably, go wrong.

But if we think things are bad now, it’s nothing compared to the horror show climate change is going to bring if drastic action is not taken – and fast.

A major study recently revealed that vital roads, bridges and railway lines in the Glasgow area are at significant risk of being damaged or closed by 2050 as a result of climate change.

The study, carried out by Climate Ready Clyde – a coalition of six councils, transport agencies, universities and government agencies – said that by this date, the area will be hit by far more powerful storms, regular heatwaves and heavy winter flooding.

While the study focused specifically on this geographical area – which covers around 1,300 sq miles – its findings are likely to be replicated across the country.

Climate Ready Clyde, therefore, has produced a new five-year plan to prepare for climate change, including better physical and natural flood defences, more air conditioning and ventilation systems, greater tree cover and use of green roofs, and wind barriers on bridges.

The group identified some of the sites most at risk, including the Erskine Bridge – which carries 38,000 cars a day – the M74 motorway near Hamilton and the M8 in central Glasgow, which is at high risk of flooding.

If coastal erosion accelerates, several hundred metres of the West Highland Line to Fort William will be threatened by the sea along the north Clyde coastline near Ardmore Point, Cardross and Dumbarton.

If these terrifying forecasts are true, then commuters had better get used to further travel misery and chaos – unless radical action is taken to mitigate the impact.

The good news is that tackling climate change is a priority, both in Scotland and the UK as a whole.

The UK played a key role in securing the 2015 Paris Agreement, where for the first time, 195 countries adopted the first universal, legally binding global climate deal.

The agreement sets out a global action plan to put the world on track to avoid dangerous climate change. Governments agreed to a long-term goal of keeping the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and to aim to limit the increase to 1.5°C.

To achieve this, they also agreed to reaching a global balance of sources and sinks of greenhouse gases in the second half of the century which would significantly reduce risks and the impacts of climate change.

In 2008, the UK introduced the Climate Change Act. As a result, the UK is committed – by 2050 – to reducing emissions by 80 per cent compared to 1990 levels, and to a series of five-year carbon budgets to get there.

In Scotland, that target is even higher, with the Climate Change (Scotland) Bill increasing long-term targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 90 per cent by 2050.

Announcing her Programme for Government (PfG) earlier this year, Nicola Sturgeon said: “Scotland’s greenhouse gas emissions have almost halved since 1990 and our current climate change bill is the next step in our low carbon transition.

“We will build on our world-leading work on climate change mitigation with a new five-year climate change adaptation programme to ensure our communities, economy and natural environment are resilient to the changing climate.”

So it’s no surprise that the transport announcements in the PfG were very much centred around low-carbon initiatives.

“We will increasingly focus our investment on low carbon solutions, in pursuit of the ambition we set out last year to phase out the need for new petrol and diesel cars and vans by 2032,” said Sturgeon.

But this year’s pledge goes even further, and the Scottish Government has committed to creating at least 20 electric towns across Scotland by 2025.

This means there will 1,500 additional charge points in homes, businesses and communities, including 150 new public charge points.

The Scottish Government has set aside £20m to enable more people and businesses to make the switch to electric vehicles and has committed to adding more than 500 new ultra low emission vehicles to public sector fleets.

And, through the £1.7m Green Bus Fund, more than 100 green buses will be added to the fleet.

While that is all very commendable and looks amazing on paper – or rather on a computer screen to save printing and boost green credentials – tackling Scotland’s infrastructure and transport issues now and in the future cannot rely on green initiatives alone.

That’s why there are currently 15 major projects listed on Transport Scotland’s website as “under construction” – with a further 27 “in preparation” – including some large-scale road improvements such as the controversial Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route, or Aberdeen bypass.

One of the biggest infrastructure projects in Scotland, the Aberdeen bypass has gone widely over budget and schedule.

The £745m 28-mile (45km) bypass was approved by Scottish ministers in 2009 and construction started in February 2015.

It has been plagued by delays due to issues with bridge construction and the project is currently embroiled in what has been described as a “stalemate” between the contractors and the Scottish Government.

It has been claimed that the bypass could cost its builders hundreds of millions of pounds more than was stated in the contract signed with the government.

North East Scotland Labour MSP Lewis Macdonald recently told the BBC: “All the reports we’ve had from the contractors about the losses they are taking suggest that the gap between what the government is paying the contractors for the project and what it’s actually costing them to build it is let’s say a nine-figure sum, it’s in the hundreds of millions.

“That’s obviously very significant indeed.

“What the contractors think would be appropriate as a payment in order to release the bit of road that’s finished, I don’t know. I think we need to know.

“We are in stalemate. The problem is the contract.

“We have heard Michael Matheson say it’s entirely the contractors who are holding this up, and if that’s the case, I think parliament is right to hear from them as to why that’s happening.”

Transport Scotland, meanwhile, said the contract for construction of the project and maintaining it for 30 years would not exceed £745m. But it would not comment on speculation about extra costs for the contractors due to commercial sensitivities.

And Transport Secretary Michael Matheson has said he recently held a “constructive” meeting with Aberdeen Roads Ltd, reporting that efforts were ongoing to secure a contract variation necessary to open the next section of the project between Craibstone and Stonehaven and Charleston.

And, yet, there is still no definitive date for its opening.

While this particular project is, quite frankly, a complete mess, delays with major infrastructure projects seem to be par for the course.

Last August, the new Queensferry Crossing was opened – eight months later than first estimated and ten weeks later than the mid-June contract completion date.

However, the project was praised overall by Audit Scotland, which published its report earlier this year, not least because it came in £110m under budget.

Speaking about the £1.34bn infrastructure scheme, Auditor General Caroline Gardner said: “There is much the public sector can learn from the way Transport Scotland managed the project and it’s important that the good practice is shared more widely.

“The management of the project delivered value for money and achieved its overall aim of maintaining a reliable road link between Fife and the Lothians.”

Amongst Scotland’s other major infrastructure projects is the £3bn, 11-stage dualling of the A9 which aims to upgrade 80 miles of single carriageway between Perth and Inverness.

Jo Blewett, project manager for the A9 dualling, told Highways Magazine: “This ambitious programme will bring many benefits for road users, communities and businesses who live along or use this vital route to the Highlands and islands and is fundamental to delivering sustainable economic growth, supporting jobs and enabling businesses to grow.

“When completed the dualled route will reduce journey times, improve journey time reliability and improve road safety for all users.”

The dualling project, which is due to be completed by 2025, is one that MSPs in the south of Scotland would like to see replicated in the region.

Transport Scotland has appointed transport planning consultants AECOM and Peter Brett Associates to produce a study to identify issues and opportunities for developing the transport network in the South-West.

It will examine the rationale for improvements to road, rail, public transport and active travel on the key strategic corridors and the railway corridors to Stranraer and Carlisle via Kilmarnock and Dumfries, with a particular focus on access to the ports at Cairnryan.

Conservative MSP for South Scotland Brian Whittle recently raised the issue in parliament, asking when the findings of the South West Scotland Transport Study would be published.

He said: “My understanding is that that will feed into the national transport study, so it will be three years before people in the South-West find out whether they are getting the investment in the infrastructure that they deserve.

“There is a welcome £3bn investment in dualling the A9, but that is as against a projected £30mn investment in the Maybole bypass.

“Given that the A75 and the A77 link the busiest port in Scotland at Cairnryan with the rest of Scotland and south of the border, is it not about time that the South-West’s infrastructure needs were met after years of neglect?”

‘Years of neglect’ may be one of the main reasons why there are so many major road projects currently underway – which also include the M8, M73 and M74 motorway improvements programme – but it’s not just roads that are in need of massive investment.

Fortunately, the rail network will also see some significant investment over the next five years.

Scotland will receive £4bn as part of Network Rail’s spending plans from 1 April 2019 to 31 March 2024.

As part of the final determination set out by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), which approved the investment strategy on the railways, the money set aside for Scotland will make the railway much more reliable and ensure there is a real focus on the needs of passengers.

The ORR has made it clear what Network Rail must do to deliver the rail service required in Scotland, which reflects what was set out by the Scottish Government in its high level output specification (HLOS).

This includes measures to improve journey times for passengers and freight operators so that the punctuality target of 92.5 per cent is hit.

Network Rail must take steps to make rail freight more attractive to businesses across Scotland, ensuring there is 7.5 per cent growth by the end of the funding period.

A stronger framework has been set up by the ORR, holding the Scotland route to account by ensuring all requirements in the HLOS are incorporated into a new route tracker; making changes to Network Rail’s licence to make all parts of the business clearly accountable for its work; changing how it monitors whether or not efficiency improvements will be delivered; and making public comparisons about how the Scotland route is shaping up against other routes throughout the five-year period.

Scotland will also benefit from increased investment in research and development, with £26m allocated from the GB-wide fund of £245m.

Commenting on the ORR’s approval of the plans, John Larkinson, chief executive of the ORR, said: “Network Rail, the Scotland route and the system operator, can now implement their plans to deliver a service which passengers and freight customers rightly demand and deserve.”

He continued: “These plans are focused on improving performance for passengers and freight operators by getting the basics right – ensuring that the railway is properly maintained and renewed, and on improving the daily operation of the railway.”

While this might come as welcome news to passengers who face daily delays and cancellations – it emerged earlier this year that ScotRail missed all train punctuality targets in 2017-18 – the rail operator has already admitted it is unlikely to achieve the timetable terms of its franchise deal until 2020-21 at the earliest.

It looks like commuters won’t have to change their morning small talk any time soon.

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