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Driving down emissions: the big decisions ministers face on transport

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Driving down emissions: the big decisions ministers face on transport

The rail journey between Scotland’s two biggest cities can be positively relaxing.
On a quiet off-peak train, passengers can stretch out their legs, log into free wifi and enjoy sweeping views framed in the north by the Ochil Hills.

But on a bad day, they can find themselves packed into vestibules, flattening themselves against the wall to let other passengers on and off, and resenting every penny of the £25.50 return fare.

It’s not just the Edinburgh-Glasgow line. Overcrowding, delays and cancellations have dominated all discussion of Scotland’s rail network for the last 12 months, even before the introduction of a new timetable in December 2018 – intended to deliver more seats, services and faster journeys – turned into a fiasco. The late delivery of new trains meant drivers and conductors were being trained later than planned, leaving the network short of crews for other services.

The Scottish Government told ScotRail’s Dutch owners Abellio in December to submit a remedial plan within eight weeks, amid demands from unions and politicians that the company be stripped of the franchise.

A further remedial notice was issued in February. But even in April there were reports of passengers fainting on crowded Borders Railway trains, and numerous cancellations in Fife, and in August, people returning to Glasgow from the Edinburgh Festival reported platforms and trains becoming alarmingly overcrowded.

The Transport Secretary Michael Matheson has insisted that failure by ScotRail to fulfil the terms of the remedial plan could result in it losing the franchise, though he has been accused by opposition politicians of letting the firm off the hook.

But an underperforming railway has impacts besides creating angry voters: it works against attempts to portray public transport as superior to the private car, which in turn impacts on the chances of Scotland meeting its ambitious net zero emissions target by 2045. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon declared a climate emergency in April and went on to put tackling climate change firmly at the centre of her Programme for Government in September. Transport is the single largest contributor to Scottish carbon emissions, accounting for 27 per cent of the total, and those emissions are proving difficult to reduce quickly.

“It’s not a capital expenditure programme that fits with the climate emergency”

A new transport bill was passed by MSPs in October and included moves to give local authorities the powers to design, create and enforce low emissions zones in Scotland’s four biggest cities, and penalise the use of vehicles that do not meet emissions standards. The bill also aims to make it easier to travel round Scotland by public transport, across connecting types of transport operated by different companies, by improving smart ticketing technology.

Most controversially, it introduced a Workplace Parking Levy (WPL), which allows councils to charge workplaces for providing parking spaces for employees, a charge that employers can either pay themselves or pass on to workers. 

The Scottish Government’s draft National Transport Strategy (the consultation on which closed in October) is full of good intentions, setting out a vision of a “sustainable, inclusive and accessible transport system, helping deliver a healthier, fairer and more prosperous Scotland”. It says that over the next 20 years, Scotland will experience a “continued transformation in transport where sustainable travel options are people’s first choice”. It commits to designing the transport system so that walking, cycling, shared and public transport are promoted and take precedence over the private car.

More cars than ever have only the driver inside

But the strategy has been published against a backdrop of transport trends that are, in several key respects, going in the wrong direction.

The good news is that rail use has increased, with the proportion of people who have travelled by train in the last month up to nearly 31 per cent, according to the Scottish Household Survey, from 15 per cent in 2002. Cycling to work and to school has also increased.

But car use has been increasing too. More cars than ever – two in three – have only the driver inside, up from 56 per cent in 1999, according to Transport Scotland. Separate figures show that bus use has dropped, with the Department for Transport estimating that there were 377 million bus journeys in Scotland in 2018 compared to 388 million the year before, and though it is hard to quantify accurately, there is some data to suggest walking rates are flatlining.

Critics argue that unless there is urgent progress towards less polluting, congesting forms of transport – and, critically, a pivoting of the transport budget away from roads towards cycling, walking, buses and rail – then the Scottish Government’s vision of a “sustainable, inclusive and accessible” transport system will remain just that, a vision.

Colin Howden, director of Transform Scotland, Scotland’s alliance for sustainable transport, says that campaigners were pleased when Sturgeon announced in May that she would not proceed with plans to cut air passenger duty. He is also pleased that one of the nation’s busiest railway lines, between Glasgow and Edinburgh, has been electrified.

Nevertheless, he is deeply concerned that the Scottish Government still leans heavily towards road building, pointing to the plan to turn the A9 between Inverness and Perth into a dual carriageway, as well as dualling the A96 between Aberdeen and Inverness at an estimated total cost of £6bn. “It’s not a capital expenditure programme that fits with the climate emergency,” he says. He wants to see a proper reprioritisation of the budget and is worried that the forthcoming Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR), following on from the National Transport Strategy, will end up being focused heavily on road building.

“There have been shown to be clear economic improvement arguments for these major road schemes”

The Scottish Government argues that the A9 and A96 projects will not only make the roads safer, but that improving connectivity between communities will boost productivity and support businesses as the A9 is a key strategic freight route carrying an estimated £19bn of goods each year, according to Transport Scotland.

The plan has the backing of business groups. Neil Amner, a director at law firm Anderson Strathern and a board member of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce (SCC), says: “There have been shown to be clear economic improvement arguments for these major road schemes.”

The SCC acknowledges a pure economic argument for road building is no longer enough, but says that decisions about road building cannot be made on a purely environmental basis either. He adds that congestion on trunk roads brings with it implications for emissions, creating an environmental argument for better roads on which vehicles can drive more efficiently. Environmental campaigners roundly dismiss that view, however, pointing out that any environmental benefit from making the drive more efficient will be wiped out by encouraging more cars onto the roads.

The SCC stresses that different solutions are required in different regions. Amner sees a case for improving rail links, for instance, by installing regular “overtaking lanes” on single track lines, to allow for more slow-moving freight to be carried without holding up passenger services. He reports that businesses favour resilience and reliability in the rail network over marginally faster journey times.
He insists public transport cannot always offer alternatives to road travel, so greener technologies are part of the solution. The Scottish Government appears to agree, making much of its 2032 phase-out of petrol and diesel cars, and claiming “the world’s first net zero aviation region” will be created in the Highlands and Islands by 2040, due to zero emissions flights - an as yet unproven technology. Amner stresses that there needs to be a debate about why people are taking journeys in the first place.

“We need to look at local transport”

Last month, John Finnie, of the Scottish Green Party, asked Transport Scotland’s director of roads Hugh Gillies whether there would be a review of continuing with the two projects. Gillies replied that it was “all up for debate” as part of the STPR. Transport Scotland later said it remained committed to the project, but the exchange highlighted the difficult choices now facing the Scottish Government in trying to boost the economy while also decarbonising it.

“We need to look at local transport,” says Howden, pointing out that two-thirds of all journeys are under five miles and half are less than two kilometres.

Cycling accounts for two per cent of journeys nationally, though in a more cycle-friendly city like Edinburgh, three per cent use it as their main mode of transport and 14 per cent cycle to work regularly.
It could in theory be much higher. In Copenhagen, which is flatter but wetter, 41 per cent of all trips into and out of the city to work and study are by bike, while a whopping 62 per cent of people who live within the city bike to work, school, college or university.

Improving cycling infrastructure (with dedicated cycle routes, signage and bike parking) is seen as key to boosting cycling rates. The same is true of walking.

The new Transport (Scotland) Act aims to improve safety and accessibility for active travellers by banning pavement parking and double parking.

The Scottish budget for active and sustainable transport, which includes cycling, walking, scooting and wheeling - travelling by wheelchair - was doubled last year, from £39m to £80m. However, it was frozen this year and remains less than four per cent of the overall travel budget. The Scottish Government’s aim was to see 10 per cent of all journeys made by bike by 2020, but admits it will not meet the target.

Measures designed to disincentivise car use through financial means burn political capital at a ferocious rate, however, as the WPL underlined. While environmental groups and the Scottish Greens backed the idea, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour opposed it, the latter arguing that it was a “regressive” tax that penalised the low paid and those who had no other transport options but the car.

Bus travel across the UK was 65 per cent more expensive in 2018 than in 2008

The patchy provision of bus services is an ongoing concern. There has been longstanding disquiet about bus companies reducing and axing services on unprofitable routes, and putting up ticket prices. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year showed bus travel across the UK was 65 per cent more expensive in 2018 than in 2008. Buses are disproportionately used by those on lower incomes, while people in remote communities can be isolated by a cut in bus services, making the provision of good buses a key social inclusion policy.

The Transport (Scotland) Act gives local authorities and Regional Transport Partnerships the power to improve bus services through Bus Service Improvement Partnerships, allowing them to take on routes if there’s a good reason for doing so, but might bringing buses into public ownership be the answer, as groups such as Get Glasgow Moving, as well as Scottish Labour and the Scottish Greens, advocate? Lothian Buses, the well-regarded bus company run by Edinburgh City Council, is often held up as an example of how it should be done.

Transform believe that questions of ownership are only part of the issue and that local authorities have to create the right conditions for good bus services to thrive, stressing that Lothian Buses are supported by a council that has had a policy for many years of discouraging car use and tackling congestion with dedicated bus lanes.

Nevertheless, questions of public ownership are coming to dominate the transport brief both in Holyrood and Westminster. As well as demands to bring ScotRail and local buses into public ownership, the Scottish Government took control of Prestwick Airport in 2013, putting it up for sale earlier this year, and in August, took over Ferguson Marine, the last commercial shipyard on the Clyde, with the priority of ensuring two CalMac ferries were completed.

Whoever runs our rail and bus companies will have to answer the same question: how do you make travelling in and around Scotland quicker, smoother, healthier and cheaper while also drastically reducing carbon emissions? Rarely has the transport brief been so important, or so challenging.

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