Despite big ideas, when it comes to transport not everything goes to plan
Image credit: Greenzowie
The work of government can be a shadowy business and it is often at its best, and sometimes at its worst, when it toils away quietly without pulling back the curtain to reveal the oily gears that keep the country moving.
But the transport department is politics laid bare – managing big, expensive projects which cause massive disruption during construction, but with a bit of luck, will make journeys more pleasant for future generations.
They don’t come much bigger or more expensive than the £1.35bn Queensferry Crossing, a monument of almost idolatrous worship for the SNP since it opened in August.
It has yet to receive its due regard from drivers, though, with its speed restricted to 50mph at the time of writing to allow the new road to bed in and numerous rubberneckers clogging up the lanes for the novelty of seeing the old road bridge from the west and the iconic iron rail bridge just that wee bit further away.
Most commuters won’t bow down to the Baal of bridges as reverently as the nationalists but few would disagree that it’s an impressive feat, apart from the Greens, of course, who questioned whether there was really anything wrong with the old bridge in the first place.
The Queensferry Crossing is the jewel in the crown of Scotland’s transport infrastructure programme, a massive country-wide endeavour that has brought Fife and Edinburgh a little bit closer, closed the “missing link” between the M8, M73 and M74, reopened the historic Borders Railway, will see a bypass completed around notoriously congested Aberdeen, turn the A9 into a state-of-the-art “electric highway”, reduce journey times for Edinburgh to Glasgow trains, and hopefully cut Scotland’s greenhouse gasses to sustainable levels.
It’s big, it’s bold and it’s ambitious, which means when things don’t go to plan, they can blow up big time as angry commuters end up late for work or don’t get home in time for tea, and opposition parties then heap apocalyptic condemnation on government, which is usually just as hysterical as ministers’ self-congratulation when things are on time and on budget.
The transport minister is often Scotland’s whipping boy in times of strife and it can be a difficult job.
Holyrood appointed women transport ministers for the first two years, until mending the roads became men’s work for the best part of the next two decades.
Sarah Boyack spearheaded one of the first Scottish Executive’s flagship policies, free bus travel for the over-60s, but things soon turned sour when she faced a no-confidence motion in 2001 over her decision to award road maintenance contracts to the private sector.
In a precursor of the left-right split that frames the latest Labour leadership battle, Boyack won round rebellious left-wing backbenchers at the last minute to keep her job, but she was shuffled off a few months later by Jack McConnell who rolled the transport brief, rather incongruously, into Wendy Alexander’s enterprise and lifelong learning portfolio.
Alexander earned the nickname ‘minister for everything’ and she resigned within six months, amid reports that she felt overburdened with the job of trying to juggle business managers, motorways and mature students, but the transport brief remained a bolt-on to other responsibilities for years to come.
Her successor, Iain Gray, soldiered on for another year until transport was eventually uncoupled from enterprise and lifelong learning, and he became the last Labour cheerleader for the many ill-fated Scottish Executive transport initiatives that were later killed or crippled by the incoming SNP administration.
The Glasgow Airport Rail Link and the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link, a doomed duo with the suitably muppet-like acronymns GARL and EARL, were among the first in the SNP’s sights.
GARL was a proposal to build a train line between Paisley Gilmour Street and Glasgow Airport, to allow seamless links to Scotland’s rail network for air travellers. It was deemed too expensive by the SNP, but it has recently been resurrected in a scaled-down version known as the Glasgow Airport Access Project as part of the Glasgow city deal which could see a light rail link.
EARL suffered a similar fate, after its plan to link Edinburgh Airport to the Edinburgh-Glasgow and Fife Circle lines via an underground station was scrapped by the SNP, just months after the act authorising the line received royal assent.
However, one Labour-Lib Dem initiative that the SNP was unable to kill was the Edinburgh trams, a project it fought tooth-and-nail against but ultimately had to stomach.
Following the 2003 election, transport was handed to the Liberal Democrats, initially under Nicol Stephen in the newly truncated role of minister of transport and telecommunications, and the first tentative steps were taken towards creating a tram network in Scotland’s capital.
At the time, the cost was estimated at £498m, with £375m in funding from the Scottish Executive and £45m from Edinburgh Council. The council planned to raise part of the revenue through congestion charging, another controversial transport proposal that was overwhelmingly rejected by the people of Edinburgh by 74 per cent in a referendum in 2005.
At the time, Stephen was also embroiled in another row over the M74 extension, which turned out to be the most expensive piece of road, mile-for-mile, in Europe, at £400m for five miles.
When Stephen became deputy first minister, Tavish Scott took on the job which was finally truncated to simply “minister for transport”. He soon found himself at the centre of a storm when he announced his backing for road tolls which became known as “Tavish’s toll tax”.
Scott steered the first Edinburgh Trams Acts through parliament in 2006, but was quickly out of a job when the SNP narrowly won the 2007 election.
One of the first votes in the third Scottish Parliament sought endorsement for the SNP’s transport priorities, which included plans to kill EARL and the trams, but the SNP were overwhelmingly defeated in the Scottish Parliament and forced to sign off on the trams. EARL limped on for a few months but was finally quashed in 2009.
However, in a move that may have been fateful for the trams, SNP finance secretary John Swinney vowed that not a single penny of government money, over and above the £500m finally approved in the Trams Acts, would go towards the project, and Edinburgh Council was left to manage the trams alone without national strategic oversight body Transport Scotland.
Whether this was an act of financial prudence, or a churlish move to nobble a project that the SNP despised, may ultimately be decided by Lord Hardie in his ongoing Tram Inquiry which is currently poring over the decisions that resulted in the trams arriving £375m over budget, three years late and several miles short.
Stewart Stevenson was the SNP’s first transport minister, and his brief was widened to include infrastructure and climate change, which had a whiff of being another ‘minister for everything’ role but at least it had a certain logic by placing transport in a portfolio that had a wider purview of strategic building and emissions.
One of his first jobs was steering the Abolition of Bridge Tolls Act through parliament, a flagship SNP manifesto pledge, while plans were also being laid to replace the Forth Road Bridge which was showing signs of rust.
But in the most striking example of just how precarious the transport minister job can be, Stevenson was forced out by a freak snowstorm which brought Scotland to a standstill in December 2010, with many motorists trapped on the M8 overnight.
The tabloid headlines were scathing, bordering on abusive, when Stevenson declared that the authorities delivered a “a first-class response to difficult conditions”, and the gap-toothed minister was mocked as ‘Jerk Frost’ and the ‘feckless’ Father Jack from sitcom, Father Ted.
It proved too much for the mild-mannered mathematician and he was replaced by former commando, Keith Brown, who took a more gung-ho approach, camping out in the Transport Scotland control room at the merest hint of bad weather, thus conjuring up images of Commando Keith in an army bivouac personally directing traffic, like Wellington at his battlefield map.
Every winter, as the first snows fell, motorists would hear the reassuring news that “SGORR has been activated” – the SNP Government’s attempt to make a macho acronym out of Scottish Government Resilience Room, on a par with the UK Government’s COBRA, which makes the rather dull Cabinet Office Briefing Room A sound like an SAS rescue mission.
Brown steadied the ship and became Scotland’s longest serving transport minister, eventually adding housing to his brief and ultimately, veterans, in another one of those incongruous pairings which sort of made sense given his former military background.
He was the face of some of the Scottish Government’s most popular transport projects, some of which had their roots in decisions made by previous ministers, including the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route which finally cleared the last of its protracted legal challenges to start construction in 2015.
The Borders Railway was also largely constructed under Brown’s watch and opened in 2015 when he had passed the baton on to Derek Mackay, providing a new gateway to the south of Scotland for commuters and visitors.
Brown, and later Mackay, also fronted the Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme (Egip) which is expected to cut journey times between Scotland’s two biggest cities and see a major refurbishment of Queen Street Station.
Brown’s tenure was not without controversy, though, and he faced opposition attacks for using Chinese steel in the construction of the Queensferry Crossing, despite the fact that Scotland had no steel mills capable of producing steel in the quantities required.
Steel also posed a problem for Mackay who faced criticism for his handling of the temporary closure of the old Forth Road Bridge when a steel truss cracked. However, a report later concluded the failure could not have been anticipated and the episode at least silenced some detractors, who called the Queensferry Crossing a “vanity project” to replace a perfectly good bridge.
Brown signed the controversial ScotRail deal with Dutch firm Abellio, which has proved unpopular with unions and caused headaches for his successors, Mackay and Humza Yousaf.
In a row that harks back to the no-confidence vote against Boyack (which was, incidentally, tabled by the SNP) – Brown was criticised for not considering a public-sector bid for ScotRail. Holyrood was constitutionally banned from tendering a public bid, but with new powers in the pipeline, he faced pressure to suspend the contract until the new devolved competences in the Scotland Act took effect.
Such a move would have left ScotRail in limbo for months, so the ten-year Abellio deal was signed with a five-year ‘break clause’ that can be activated if the operator misses punctuality targets.
The SNP was re-elected in 2016 on a pledge to ensure a public-sector bid for ScotRail in the future. One leading candidate is CalMac, with managing director Martin Dorchester already eyeing a train set to add to his publicly-owned ferry fleet. Yousaf’s current portfolio also includes the Scottish islands, suggesting the Scottish Government may also be thinking ahead to a similar synergy between rail and sea.
By that time, ministers hope to have Prestwick Airport off their books, with negotiations underway to find a another private buyer and exciting prospects to turn it into spaceport or logistics hub for London Heathrow.
The Scottish Government bought Prestwick Airport in 2013 after New Zealand firm Infratil put it up for sale for £1 amid losses of around £2m a year. Prestwick was regarded as too big to fail, as it would deprive Scotland of a key strategic airport and damage the already fragile economy on the west coast.
Prestwick is not the only airborne threat for the SNP, with its plan to abolish Air Passenger Duty (APD) arguably running counter to their progressive tax and low carbon agenda.
The SNP argue that slashing APD will make Scottish airports more competitive and attract tourists, but with a “discussion” currently underway about raising income tax for high earners, the SNP has been accused of planning low taxes for the international jet set but high taxes for residents.
More tourists will also, inevitably, mean more planes, which will create more emissions and strain the Scottish Government’s climate targets which it is already struggling to meet. With a desire to bring more dirty planes to Scotland, the SNP is trying to clean up its act on the ground.
In her latest Programme for Government, Nicola Sturgeon announced plans to phase out new petrol and diesel vehicles in Scotland by 2032, eight years ahead of the target set by the UK Government, roll out more electric charging points, extend the green bus fund which supports the rollout of low carbon buses, and accelerate the procurement of electric or ultra-low emission vehicles in the public and private sectors.
There are also plans to encourage uptake of private electric vehicles, and an innovation fund to encourage business and academia to overcome obstacles such as the difficulties of charging cars parked outside tenements, as well as making the A9 Scotland’s first “fully electric-enabled highway”.
And in her speech to conference in October, the First Minister announced that Glasgow will be the first Scottish city to introduce low emission zones by the end of the year, with a further three Scottish cities expected to introduce them in the months ahead.
A new transport bill is also being drafted which will include measures to improve public transport, such as provisions on smart ticketing, to giving local authorities a range of options to improve local bus services.