Lockdown saw Scotland's streets transformed, but the effect is likely temporary
The tragic news that a train had been derailed in Aberdeenshire emerged early on 12 August, with initial uncertainty giving way to the realisation that three people had lost their lives, with six others rushed to hospital.
The accident, which took place on the 06:38 Aberdeen to Glasgow Queen Street service, occurred after heavy rains brought by storms across Scotland. Speaking the next day, Transport Secretary Michael Matheson paid his condolences to the families affected, before announcing plans for an investigation into what went wrong. The extreme weather, he said, was likely to have been a factor.
The tragedy, which brought sympathy from across the UK and beyond, came as public transport numbers had began to rise again, following months of lockdown and with workers across the country forced to work from home.
In fact the transport system was just one area to undergo rapid change following the spread of COVID, but of all the briefs in government it was perhaps the one where effects were most visible.
At the end of March, and for much of April, Scotland’s streets were transformed.
Gone were the cars and the vans and the lorries. The noise changed too. Not silent, just different. Exercise, on bike or on foot, became a vital excuse to leave the house. Cyclists, joggers and walkers claimed back places usually dominated by cars.
Air quality improved too. You could actually feel it in the cities, with areas of previously illegal levels now cleaner and fresher.
Nitrogen dioxide levels on Nicolson Street and Queensferry Road in Edinburgh fell by around 61 per cent during lockdown, according to research from environmental consultancy Ricardo, while St John’s Road in Corstorphine – among the most polluted streets in Scotland – saw a 68 per cent drop. Residents living near Edinburgh Zoo, up the road, said that, without the sound of engine noise, they could hear the noise of the lions roaring for the first time.
These changes were replicated across Scotland, with all of Scotland’s most polluted streets – Hope Street in Glasgow, St John’s Road in Edinburgh, Seagate and Lochee Road in Dundee and Academy Street in Inverness – previously well in excess of legal limits, seeing drops in pollution.
It was one obvious silver lining to a deadly crisis, and the Scottish Government did its best to help encourage people to engage in active travel, with Matheson announcing £10m for a new infrastructure programme based in creating pop-up walking and cycling routes – or to support temporary improvements to existing routes – alongside new guidance from Transport Scotland and Sustrans Scotland on plans to widen pavements and cycle lanes.
Announcing the funding, Matheson said: “For our air quality, climate, health and particularly for our mental wellbeing at this time, walking and cycling remain our most beneficial form of transport. We should all be encouraged by the increases we are seeing in cycling and this government will do what it can to continue to support this through our recovery and beyond.”
The Scottish Government has long-faced criticism from campaigners over a perceived overemphasis on car travel. But, for once, active travel campaigners were at the forefront of policy decisions.
In fact the change came very quickly – back at the SNP conference both Fergus Ewing and Matheson had emphasised the importance of building large new roads.
As Matheson told a Holyrood fringe event: “We’ll continue to make sure we have the right type of road infrastructure to support local communities and local businesses.
“So, road investment will still be needed no matter what. What we’re trying to achieve though, is to try and create the right type of balance.”
Trains, too, had become a matter of controversy, with criticism over ScotRail’s services – beset by concerns over lateness, unreliability and overcrowding – eventually leading ministers to strip Abellio of its contract in December, announcing the Dutch company would cease to operate the Scottish rail franchise in March 2022, three years earlier than scheduled.
Yet, while the usual debate over planes, trains and automobiles raged on, like most areas of domestic policy it was pushed aside by the coronavirus crisis. Workers across Scotland were told to work from home, with meetings moved from offices and boardrooms to Teams, Zoom and Skype.
In that context, the roads grew quiet, and connectivity became more important than ever. In fact, even before the lockdown, the increased priority placed on digital was obvious from the Infrastructure Commission for Scotland’s report. Published in January, the report provided 23 recommendations for the Scottish Government to consider, including for Scotland to create its own data centre, rather than relying on London, and for the country to have direct connection to more than one of the top internet nodes in Europe “for the purposes of national resilience”. It said the consequence of Scotland’s data traffic travelling to and from London meant “an increased delay or latency between data being sent and received”.
“This could make Scotland a less attractive location for certain business applications,” the report said.
A Scottish data centre industry, with access to international subsea cables, could provide better service for Scotland’s domestic business and public sector, but also service international markets, it said.
Meanwhile, broadband provision continued to grow across the country, though much more slowly than most would like, while sniping between the SNP and Tories over responsibility for delays continued as before.
Yet clearly Scotland is a long way from returning to normal. And while lockdown may have brought some benefits – not least in boosting active travel – clearly concerns remain over what could come next, particularly as lockdown restrictions are lifted and demand for public transport begins to rise.
The Scottish Parliament’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee has already launched an inquiry into the impact of coronavirus on the rural economy and public transport, with convener Edward Mountain warning: “Remote communities which already suffer from poorer transport and digital infrastructure have been effectively cut off from their families and from accessing vital services.”
Concerns over the long-term impact are understandable, with enclosed spaces already shown to present huge risks for transmission, leading Matheson to warn demand for space on buses and trains will be “significant”.
Social distancing and the need to maintain a two-metre space will obviously present problems, while Transport Scotland has admitted there was an “extremely high level of uncertainty” over estimating travel demand.
Yet if coronavirus has proved anything, it is that Scotland’s infrastructure must become more flexible. The system may return to something resembling normality eventually, but it is unlikely to be any time particularly soon.
What that ‘new normal’ will look like is anyone’s guess.