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Direction of Travel: Can better transport links help drive support for the Union?

Direction of Travel: Can better transport links help drive support for the Union?

Until recently, Boris Johnson’s one big transport idea for Scotland was to build what his former adviser Dominic Cummings called “the world’s most stupid tunnel”.

The underwater link with Northern Ireland was seen as a way of bringing the constituent parts of the UK closer together, while signalling the engineering ambition of what the Prime Minister likes to call “global Britain”.

Regarded as a joke by many, the project now appears to be sunk due to the not-so-funny £15bn hole it would have left in the public finances.

But while Johnson’s tunnel vision has gone, the idea behind it – to strengthen the Union with improved transport links – remains very much alive.

It’s the idea that forms the basis of the Union Connectivity Review currently being conducted by Sir Peter Hendry, the chair of Network Rail.

His final recommendations are expected imminently, but publishing interim findings in March, Sir Peter said devolution, while being good for transport overall, had also led to “a certain lack of attention to connectivity between the four nations” due to competing political priorities and complex funding arrangements.

Sir Peter and his team identified a number of “key concerns”, including the need for better connections between the HS2 rail line and Scotland; higher capacity and faster journey times between Scotland and England via the East Coast Main Line and the A1; better connections on the A75 from the ferry port at Cairnryan to the M6 corridor, which is particularly important for freight; and better flight connections between the north of Scotland and England. 

Incidentally, there was no mention of an underwater tunnel. However, Sir Peter said he had asked two experts to assess the feasibility of a “fixed link” between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.

While everyone benefits from improved transport links, the work of the Connectivity Review is being carried out against a backdrop of fevered constitutional debate and political point scoring.

And though perhaps not carrying the same emotional heft as issues such as education or health, transport policy nevertheless has the potential to dramatically improve – or worsen – the quality of people’s lives.

Even though the final report is yet to be published, the politicking has already begun. In August, then Scotland Office minister David Duguid accused the Scottish Government of a “disappointing” lack of engagement, a decision he said could cost Scotland £20m in initial funding. For its part, the SNP has described the review as a “power grab” which was launched without consultation with the devolved administrations.

In the two decades that transport matters have been devolved, the Scottish Government has delivered major infrastructure projects such as the £350m Borders Railway and the £1.35bn Queensferry Crossing. Yet the UK Government now looks set to deliberately undermine Holyrood by directly investing in Scottish projects, beginning with upgrades to the A75, according to reports – a move which is expected to be confirmed following the publication of Sir Peter’s report.

The work of the Connectivity Review is also being carried out against the backdrop of increasing political momentum on tackling the climate emergency. The recommendations are likely to be published ahead of the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November, which will take place amid a huge sense of urgency and under a burden of enormous expectation. 

Yet many of the key transport projects already underway in Scotland – the £3bn dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness, for example – now look hopelessly out of date. And therein lies the rub – many of the projects needed to improve connectivity and economic prosperity will fly in the face of attempts to cut emissions.

Transport currently accounts for 27 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions – a larger share than any other sector, with road transport making up the majority of that. Transport-related emissions have actually increased recently and are only three per cent lower than in 1990. If the UK is to dramatically reduce emissions in the years ahead, then public transport will need to undergo a major transformation.

One such project could be the extension of high-speed rail beyond the north of England and across the border. The UK’s second stretch of high-speed rail (HS2) is currently under construction between London and the West Midlands, where it will connect with the existing West Coast Main Line, taking passengers on to cities including Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. The project is not expected to be completed until 2029 at the earliest, with a second phase expected to link Birmingham with Crewe (phase 2a) and an eastern leg connecting with Leeds (phase 2b).

Transport Scotland, an agency of the Scottish Government, says it’s “making the case” for Scotland to be included in high-speed rail, but based on the current timetable, some are concerned about being left behind. Last year, a Transport Scotland official warned that even with the benefit of increased journey times resulting from phase 2, the travel time between Edinburgh and London would still fall well short of the three-hour goal needed to convince passengers to opt for rail over air travel. He said waiting until the 2040s to see the benefit of HS2 in Scotland and the north of England would be economically damaging, with disproportionate benefits for the south-east.

A more immediate concern for the Scottish Government, however, is the state of rail services within Scotland, with an ongoing pay dispute threatening to cause disruption during COP26 next month. Rail union the RMT has just confirmed its members will take strike action from 1 November until 12 November, which if unresolved guarantees maximum embarrassment for the government as Scotland welcomes delegates from across the world. 

And earlier this month, Aslef, the RMT, the TSSA and Unite issued a joint statement calling for investment in Scotland’s railways. 

The recent problems have been exacerbated by the pandemic, with passenger numbers only now recovering from when the country first went into lockdown in March last year. However, the cracks were already starting to appear before Covid came along and so brutally exposed them. 

It was announced in December 2019 that Dutch firm Abellio would have its £7bn contract to run the ScotRail franchise cancelled three years early amid criticism over performance levels. The service will be taken into public hands from next year when a new arms-length government company will take on the running of services.

If the SNP’s handling of Scotland’s ferries is anything to go on, the signs aren’t great. Vital links for the country’s island communities, ferries are identified as an essential part of the transport mix in the Connectivity Review.

Two new ships are currently under construction at the Ferguson yard on the Clyde, which was nationalised in 2019 after going into administration. One of the ferries, the Glen Sannox, which will operate CalMac’s Arran route, is not due to be delivered until the second half of next year – more than four years late. It was initially launched by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in 2017 but with painted-on windows at the bridge and non-operational funnels, suggesting it was nearer completion than was actually the case. Between them, the two ships will cost the taxpayer more than double the original price of the contract. 

To add to the ignominy, the Ferguson shipyard last month missed out on a tender to build two further ferries, meaning the work will go to Turkey or eastern Europe. The new ships, which will sail between Islay and the mainland, are the first major order by Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), the government-owned company which procures ferries for CalMac.

The Scottish Government’s credibility when it comes to delivering major transport and infrastructure projects matters because it is likely to face increasing competition from Whitehall amid attempts to firm up support for the Union by investing north of the border.

In January, Scotland Office minister Iain Stewart accused the government in Edinburgh of blocking “billions of pounds of investment” by refusing to let officials from Transport Scotland engage with the Connectivity Review, a move he claimed left the UK Government with no choice but to speak directly with local authorities.

Councils themselves have a chequered past when it comes to delivering major projects. Look no further than Edinburgh’s tram project, which is now well into his second phase. The original line, between the airport and the city centre, finally opened in 2014 – years late and £375m over budget, despite being a truncated version of what had initially been planned. 

The project was held up by contractual disputes between the city council and the contractors but wasn’t helped by the SNP government which had initially attempted to scrap the scheme altogether before handing over £500m under duress along with a promise to contribute “not a penny more”. The project’s second phase, taking the trams through Leith to Newhaven, is scheduled to open in the spring of 2023.

In Glasgow, an even more ambitious plan to overhaul the city’s existing transport network has been put forward. The Glasgow Metro is a series of measures to better integrate public transport in the city and surrounding local authority areas. The project, seen as key to getting people out of their cars and driving down emissions, will likely seek to address a lack of connectivity between existing rail and underground services, improve bus journey times and address the long-standing need for a direct rail link with Glasgow airport.

The city council included the scheme in its ‘Greenprint for Investment’, a £30bn portfolio of projects published last month in the run-up to COP26, which also features plans for a new £60m-80m public space by putting a “cap” over the M8 motorway at Charing Cross in the city centre and the planting of 18 million new trees to create a £107m Clyde Climate Forest.  

In the years ahead, Scotland’s two largest cities – which lie just 50 miles apart, after all – may seek to improve connections between each other, allowing seamless travel from one side of the central belt to the other across tram, train and underground. There is no shortage of vision or ambition – the big political question will be who funds it.  

Read the most recent article written by Chris Marshall - Will the Omicron variant cancel plans for a 'normal' Christmas?

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