Queen opens Borders Railway - but is Scotland's transport system up to speed?

Written by Alan Robertson on 9 September 2015 in Inside Politics

As a refresh of Scotland’s National Transport Strategy gets underway, Holyrood asks whether it is at a crossroads


This week will mark the end of a 21-year journey for Bill Jamieson. It all started with a meeting at Borders General Hospital called by Borders Transport Futures (BTF), a group formed to investigate reopening some or all of the 98-mile Waverley Route that closed in 1969 as part of the infamous Beeching cuts. Jamieson, whose house in the village of Stow looks onto the Waverley Route embankment, tells Holyrood: “It wasn’t particularly well attended.”

An engineer with the local council, he volunteered to help out should expertise on bridges along the route be required. Four-and-a-half years later, the Campaign for Borders Rail – an offshoot of the BTF designed to mobilise public support – was launched. Within 12 months, 17,000 signatures had been collected for a petition to the Scottish Parliament. “I thought we would either succeed or fail fairly quickly,” says Jamieson as he thinks back to when the campaign first started.

Yet this week, he and his fellow campaigners are preparing for the Queen to officially open the new rail line between the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh. Passenger trains are already running on the line, though the Queen’s presence on the day she becomes Britain’s longest-serving monarch is the “icing on the cake”, according to Scottish Government minister Keith Brown.
Transport Minister for just over two years before being promoted to Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure, Investment and Cities in Nicola Sturgeon’s first reshuffle last November, the project has been a firm fixture of Brown’s brief for some time. “A woman wrote to me to say when she was a girl she used to get the train down to the Borders,” the Clackmannanshire and Dunblane MSP says.

“Because she was a schoolgirl and travelling unaccompanied, she was usually told to go into the guard’s compartment. Sometimes there were boxes there and she was really grateful because [it meant] she got a seat. She then subsequently found out the boxes were carrying the dead bodies of people who had died in Edinburgh hospitals back down to the Borders – they were actually coffins. She wrote to me recounting this so I managed to get her a couple of tickets for a trip on the train. It’s (the rail line) had a huge impact.”

Brown, who smiles as he recalls being allowed to sound the horn on his first trip on the new line, considers the project “transformative”. “I am proud that we, at a very difficult time budget-wise, on a project which many people questioned, stuck with it and have now got trains running,” he adds. Not everyone will be fully satisfied, he acknowledges. Indeed, not everyone is.

Double tracking was reduced as the project progressed while a number of bridges on the route have been built to accommodate a single track, making any future expansion more costly, explains Colin Howden, director of Transform Scotland, a charity that advocates for sustainable transport and has a membership of over 60 organisations. “In the railway [industry], you talk about passive provision – you build it just wide enough so you could have a double track in future. Here, it appears that they’ve gone for what we would call aggressive non-provision. It is almost as if they’ve decided we’re going to build it really small to prevent this potential gain double in the future. Either that or just some really bad decisions have been taken about specification.”

Howden’s grievances extend beyond this project, however. “There is no level playing field in terms of investment,” he says, running off figures for road projects such as the A9 dualling between Perth and Inverness compared to the likes of the Highland Main Line. “Clearly the government is failing on its climate commitments,” he adds. “It has missed four targets in a row and we would put that down to, amongst other things, the changing capital expenditure priorities going from public transport across into road building.”

An agreement brokered by WWF Scotland, and signed by the leaders of Scotland’s main political parties last week, committed them to detailing plans to build a “low carbon transport system for Scotland” in their 2016 manifestos. “There needs to be much clearer not just policy support for active travel – walking and cycling – but also actually spending some money on it,” adds Howden, whose campaign group is one of seven to encourage parties to promise segregated cycle routes in each of Scotland’s seven cities that extend out to the city boundaries.

The estimated volume of traffic on Scotland’s roads was at its highest ever in 2014 with 44.8bn vehicle kilometres recorded, an increase of two per cent on the previous year. This, as the number of people opting to travel to work by public transport or by cycling and walking refused to budge. Thirteen per cent of journeys to work were on foot, ten per cent were by bus, four per cent were by train and just less than three per cent were by bicycle.

These figures are disappointing news for the first meeting of the stakeholder group considering a ‘refresh’ of Scotland’s National Transport Strategy (NTS) this week. It is understood that the refresh, ordered by Transport Minister Derek Mackay almost nine years after the then Scottish Executive published the NTS, will not be re-examining investment decisions or the Strategic Transport Projects Review, which in 2008 set out Scotland’s investment programme for transport through to 2032.

However, bus services, and future changes at UK level in bus policy are expected to be on the agenda. Last month, the UK Government was urged by centre-left think-tank IPPR to use the forthcoming Buses Bill to allow local authorities, in towns and rural areas across England, to introduce London-style franchising amid claims passengers have been let down by a lack of competition and the failure of deregulation.

Labour’s efforts to strengthen regulation in the Scottish bus industry have stalled, though. Iain Gray’s private member’s bill was abandoned before summer recess due to a lack of time in the parliamentary calendar, his only hope being that the government would take it forward. Scottish Labour acknowledges privately that the bill is dead for the time being after Mackay rebuffed an invitation to take it up. 

Meanwhile, the discussion south of the border as to where power lies – the proposed legislation would provide the option for combined authority areas with directly-elected mayors to be responsible for the running of their local bus services – does raise questions about governance arrangements in Scotland. It is almost a decade since Scotland’s seven regional transport partnerships came into effect.

“They’ve never come to much because they were created by the Labour/Lib Dem government and then the SNP came into power and decided not to give them any powers – they effectively have no powers,” says Professor Tom Rye, director of the Transport Research Institute at Edinburgh Napier University. “If you want to change governance in transport in Scotland and move to larger more regional authorities then you’ve got to be very, very clear about what powers those authorities have. They should, at the very least, have some powers over public transport integration and I would say public transport regulation.

“If you look at what is happening south of the border then it is clear that for at least the metropolitan areas, they’re moving towards some level of bus re-regulation. It’s clear from the experience of London and other cities in Europe that have a regional approach and, having had bus regulation, they’ve got more successful bus industries, higher proportions of people using the bus than we do in Scotland and cheaper fares as well.”

While provisional figures published last month by Transport Scotland indicated that bus passenger journeys are at their lowest level in at least a decade, the number of rail passengers has jumped 21 per cent over the last five years. Abellio took over the running of the ScotRail franchise back in April, the Dutch rail operator promising new trains between Glasgow and Edinburgh, upgraded intercity services as well as better journey times.

However, its first five months have been marred by difficulties off the track more than on it. Friction with staffing unions saw trains cancelled in July due to a lack of drivers willing to work on a Sunday. A month earlier ministers faced calls for an inquiry over the firm’s Scottish franchise after it emerged chief executive Jeff Hoogesteger had been dismissed following an investigation into “irregularities” over Abellio winning the franchise competition for regional passenger services in Limburg in the Netherlands. Mackay tells Holyrood he is "quite satisfied that none of those activities in the Netherlands in any way have infected the procurement process in Scotland" having had Audit Scotland go through the franchise contract and seek independent advice himself.

On the track, at least, closure of the 330 metre-long Winchburgh tunnel for six weeks as part of the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme appeared to pass without a hitch. However, confidence is less high in certain quarters when it comes to the closure of the high level Queen Street Tunnel for four-and-a-half months next year. “We aren’t even touching the surface yet of what the Queen Street closure will look like,” says Stuart Patrick, chief executive of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce. “When it’s much more difficult to get into Glasgow from the east for 20 weeks all through the summer holidays, we’re worrying about the tourism impact and we’re worrying about that because, of course, this will be the second year after the Commonwealth Games when you are trying very hard to get more tourists into Glasgow.”

The chamber is now writing to a number of key players, including the First Minister, to seek assurances after Land Securities put their £400m extension plans for the Buchanan Galleries shopping centre on hold “due to an increased level of risk generated by the simultaneous delivery of the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme”. 

“If there is a suggestion that the investment [in the Edinburgh-Glasgow line] is there to improve the quality of the journey, it is not obvious that it is going to do much about that,” adds Patrick. “So it makes us feel doubly uneasy about the impact it appears to be having on the Buchanan Galleries project in the heart of the city.”

Then there’s the matter of HS2. An initial phase of the project will consist of a new high-speed line that is expected to have trains running from London to Birmingham by 2026. Lines are then anticipated to run to Manchester and Leeds within another seven years. Almost two years ago HS2 Ltd, the lead company, was instructed to look at further rail capacity and journey-time improvements between northern England and Scotland, following which an interim report was sent to UK and Scottish ministers.

However, Keith Brown announced last week that an agreement has been reached with Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, to publish the complete study by the end of this year. A joint announcement is then expected in February. Scotland's Infrastructure Secretary says that a commitment to cut journey times from Glasgow-London/Edinburgh-London to three hours or less has been agreed by the two governments, though how that is to be done is less clear at this moment in time.

Press reports earlier this year suggested the team behind the HS2 project had concluded there is “no business case” for extending it to Scotland, with upgrades to existing lines now their focus of attention. “Yes, I think that was purported to have come from within HS2,” says Brown. “I don’t know where it came from; there was nothing that I had seen in relation to that kind of conclusion. That’s not our conclusion and I’m very hopeful, indeed optimistic, that that will not be the conclusion of the joint piece of work that we’re doing now.”

Asked whether HS2 extending to Scotland is feasible, Brown responds matter-of-factly. “I would say necessary.” That, he accepts, may require the Scottish Government to meet some of the project costs. “There are a number of ways [in which to do that]; there are other potential funding sources, private sector funding, European funding which may help with that,” he adds. “But, yes, the Scottish Government is going to have to make a contribution.”

No HS2 is better than an HS2 that does not include north of the border as far as he is concerned. His logic is straightforward. “If you have no HS2, nobody gets an advantage. If you have HS2 that only goes to Manchester and Leeds, it puts Scotland at a real disadvantage.”

The logic applies in reverse when the debate shifts to aviation. The SNP Government has vowed to halve air passenger duty (APD) – April 2018 is a “logical date” for the tax change to come into effect once devolved, according to Brown – and then scrap it “when resources allow”.

“I think everybody recognises – we certainly do – that it has long ceased to be a genuine environmental tax,” adds the Infrastructure Secretary. “There are environmental issues that we have to address, first of all, as part of the reduction and certainly any abolition. But it’s a tax-raising power – it is just to raise revenue rather than to do with an environmental purpose.”

Unsurprisingly, airports and the wider business community within Scotland welcome devolution, after lobbying efforts at the UK Government’s door have largely fallen on deaf ears – an exemption for children under 12 flying economy class this year followed by extension to children under 16 in 2016 is all they have to show for it. Airports on the other side of the border aren’t any more pleased amid fears of losing passengers to their Scottish competitors, but they’re not the only ones to express concern.

“Why are you cutting the tax on that when you have failed your climate targets four years in a row?” asks Howden rhetorically. “Not good enough.” APD isn’t perfect, the campaign group director readily admits, pointing to a recent “frequent flyer levy” proposal that would hit those who choose to fly regularly as a potential replacement. “Now, I’m not saying it is perfect but we need to do something about aviation emissions.”

Even with moves on APD some way off, Scottish airports are doing very well. Edinburgh Airport reported its busiest ever month in July with more than 1.2m passengers travelling through its terminal. Meanwhile, Glasgow Airport recorded its busiest July in seven years as it clocked up a ninth consecutive month of double digit growth. The absence of an air strategy, though, has fuelled suspicion – at least on Stuart Patrick’s part – that the west of Scotland is being sold short by bodies such as Transport Scotland and Scottish Enterprise.

“Derek Mackay says he doesn’t really want to produce an air strategy because it would tie the hands of government and they wouldn’t be as opportunistic,” he tells Holyrood. “But, as a consequence, the flow through from that is that despite the fact it’s his constituency that Glasgow [Airport] is based in, we’re still not sure that we trust the strategic intent of the Government... I’d like us to understand the role of the air industry and air transport in the Scottish economic strategy. It’s very generic [and] it tends to default to discussions about APD, which again, are largely generic. We think that there is a lack of geographic sub-assessment of Scotland.”

The Scottish Government’s decision to take Prestwick Airport into public hands in 2013 did leave his members feeling “uncomfortable”, says Patrick, amid fears certain actions to return to growth could be at the expense of Glasgow Airport. “But they haven’t shown any signs, frankly, of coming up with a plan that looks as if it is going to deliver that growth,” he adds. Indeed, the airport returned a loss of £4.1m in 2014-15 – up from £3.9m the previous year – while public spending watchdog Audit Scotland has warned that plans to return the asset to the private sector could take “some years”. Still, Brown is not one for regrets, going so far as to call for “more support” for Prestwick as he launched a broadside at other politicians “who professed at the time [of the takeover] to support the decision [but] so quickly turned into a situation of trying to have a go”.

He says: “It’s a question of maximising the different opportunities that are there. It is not easy, we never said it was going to be easy, we never said it was going to be a short-term thing, and we never said that we wanted to do this. We didn’t want to be in a position where we had to buy the airport but we felt – given the consequences of not doing so for the economy – it was right to do it.”

However controversial the government’s involvement in Prestwick is, it cannot compare to the fierce debate about a third Heathrow runway. In July, the Airports Commission backed the idea of expanding Heathrow rather than Gatwick, a recommendation that sparked praise and disquiet in equal measure from Glasgow and Edinburgh airports respectively. The UK Government, which has yet to publicly endorse the report’s findings, has been urged by their Scottish counterparts to now act after “decades of prevarication”. 

History suggests, however, that taking your time is par for the course when it comes to big infrastructure projects, as Jamieson has learned. He remains convinced that going along to that first meeting at Borders General Hospital in 1994 was a worthwhile venture. “But I would have to say that I’ve had enough of it now,” he laughs. “I’ve been involved, one way or another, for 21 years… If we [the Campaign for Borders Rail] hadn’t existed, would the scheme still have gone ahead? It might have done but I think the fact that there was the campaign certainly made it a lot more likely.”




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