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by Ruaraidh Gilmour
20 May 2024
Transport: A fork in the road

The A9 dualling near Perth | Alamy

Transport: A fork in the road

This month the A9 claimed the life of another motorist. Morven Gordon was involved in a collision with another vehicle at the Schold blackspot. She was the second fatality on the road in a week after a 59-year-old woman died following a three-vehicle crash at the Tore roundabout.  

The A9 is a key piece of Scotland’s transport infrastructure – it’s the spine of Scotland’s road network – but it is tragically synonymous with road accidents and deaths.  

As of July 2023, 335 people had been killed on the Perth-to-Inverness stretch of the road since 1979. Of those fatalities, 59 occurred between 2011 and 2022, equating to 5.4 deaths per year in the 11-year period.

In 2007, with aims to radically improve safety, reduce driver stress, reduce journey times and improve journey time reliability, the SNP committed to dual the road, and repeated the commitment in its 2011 manifesto, promising to dual from Perth to Inverness by 2025. Alex Salmond, the then first minister, told the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee at the beginning of this month that dualling roads like the A9 had been shown to make them 66 per cent safer.  

Fast forward to less than a year from the original completion date and the 83-mile route between Perth and Inverness has only 11 miles of dual carriageway. In December last year, then transport minister Màiri McAllan delayed the project completion date by 10 years. That followed a government announcement last February that concluded that completion by 2025 was “unachievable”. McAllan’s predecessor, Jenny Gilruth, blamed the delay on the pandemic, Brexit and the war in Ukraine. However, civil engineers had been warning that the project was not moving at the appropriate pace. 

Speaking ahead of a meeting with MSPs in June last year, the chief executive of the Civil Engineering Contractors Association, Grahame Barn, said: “We have known for a number of years that the pace at which the design and road orders were coming forward meant it was impossible to achieve 2025.” 

To add to the project’s major failings, in 2011 the SNP-led government predicted the cost was £3bn. That has now been revised to £3.7bn.  

Unfortunately for Scots living outside of the central belt, this is not the only major delay to transport improvements under this government. The Glen Sannox and Glen Rosa ferries, both under construction in the nationalised Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow, are close to six years late and are over budget. And while communities that rely on the Ardrossan to Brodick crossing wait for the two new ships, the number of journeys has plummeted by 150,000 in just three years. 

Labour MSP Katy Clark has said several islanders have been in touch with her office to raise concerns about their business’s viability on Arran. 

She said: “Islanders have endured frequent delays and cancellations in recent years, and we are now seeing the devastating impact. 

“Tourism has long been the lifeblood of Arran. Now, visitor numbers are threatened with sailings being less reliable and even the visitor centre on the island is set to close due to Scottish Government cuts.” 

In response to this, Transport Scotland said it recognises “the impact delays have on island communities” and said the government is investing in the ferry network. As of 2026, it is expected that the ageing CalMac fleet will be bolstered by six new vessels: Glen Sannox, Glen Rosa and four other vessels under construction in Turkey that are on schedule and budget, according to latest reports. 

Few would argue that the delays and soaring budget costs to construction of the two ships and the dualling of the A9 haven’t been a source of embarrassment for the Scottish Government. But in the next few decades, it plans to drastically decarbonise transport and has committed to almost completely decarbonising the road transport sector by 2045 as well as reducing the number of kilometres travelled by car by 20 per cent by 2030. Already some of those targets could be in jeopardy.  

According to a report from the Climate Change Committee (CCC) in March, the country’s 2030 climate goals are “no longer credible”. And while it says there is still a path to longer-term targets, stronger action is needed to reduce emissions across the economy. It highlights the transport and building sectors, arguing that they “require a particularly rapid increase in the rate of emissions reduction”.  

According to the Climate Change Plan Update published in December 2020 by the Scottish Government, Scotland’s transport emissions must decrease by 44 per cent by 2030. This means the annual emissions reduction rate must increase by almost a factor of four. The CCC describes that as “an extremely stretching target”. 

Worryingly, the report adds: “A clear strategy on how this will be achieved is still missing.” 

Professor Iain Docherty, dean of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Stirling and an expert in transport, says Scotland, the UK and any advanced Western democracy “has to decide whether we are serious about decarbonisation or not”.  

Docherty says: “I’m not convinced we are serious about it; I don’t believe that people are willing to make the level of change in their behaviour that we need.  

“I would need to see radical changes in how we approach driving – it’s 90 per cent of the transport system. The other thing is that the impact of driving is getting bigger again rather than less, because of this ‘bigger cars’ issue.” 

He adds: “If the UK or Scotland is to have fewer cars on the road, there is no alternative but to make driving more expensive. A government is going to have to fix that.  

“My view is that the UK Government will say that road pricing [direct charges levied for the use of roads, including road tolls, distance or time-based fees, congestion charges] is 10 years away until one day it announces it. And that will happen when it has lost enough tax revenue because enough cars are electric, and they are not buying fuel.  

“Fuel taxes are a big contributor to the Exchequer and they were declining, although that decline has become a bit more complicated because as petrol and diesel have become cheaper in the last few years when we didn’t have the fuel tax escalator, people have responded by buying bigger cars.” 

It’s generally accepted that decarbonising the way Scots travel will require an increased use of public transport, but while usage in 2022-23 rose by 34 per cent on the previous year, it remains lower than pre-pandemic levels. As many as 75 per cent of those journeys were made by bus, and according to the Scottish Transport statistics almost 40 per cent of these journeys were made under the National Concessionary Travel Scheme. 

While not all public transport metrics point in positive directions, it’s clear that since the Scottish Government made bus travel free for under 22s, young people are taking advantage of the scheme, having made more than 100 million journeys. It is also arguably embedding positive sustainable travel behaviours for future generations.

Following on from this success and a review of the cost of public transport, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Fiona Hyslop, announced in March that the Scottish Government will trial flat fares for buses on routes that are yet to be disclosed. 

While this seems positive and there is hope it will encourage more people to use public transport, Docherty questions whether the model of flat fares seen in some European countries like Austria, which has an annual travel ticket priced at €365, would be affordable for the Scottish Government. 

As of 2019, in Vienna 822,000 people – nearly half the city’s population – had a 365-day ticket, and the percentage share of journeys made by underground, tram or bus had increased to 38 per cent.  

Docherty says: “That would cost us huge amounts of money that we don’t have. The system is just not set up to do it. It could be done, but what else are we going to cut and how much will we have to raise the price of petrol, or how much new tax are we going to slap on cars? That’s how it’s done in a lot of places. Who pays is always the question.” 

Scotland has made good progress in decarbonising some areas of its public transport network. Around 76 per cent of all rail passenger journeys and 45 per cent of freight services in Scotland are being made on electric services. However, Scotland’s bus network is not hitting anywhere near the same low-emission journeys as rail. Research by Transport Scotland shows that by the end of 2023, only 16 per cent of Scotland’s fleet will be zero-emission buses. 

As Scotland looks towards getting back on track to meet its long-term carbon reduction targets, difficult questions may need to be addressed around legacy projects like the A9. 

Docherty tells Holyrood: “Let’s assume we need fewer vehicles on the road. It is easiest to swap car use for alternative modes of transport in the cities – there’s more public transport, more opportunities for car sharing, and you can walk and cycle more. But that will need a lot of investment. 

“So, if that is the case, and we need people living in cities and in the central belt to change how they travel does that mean that our current transport investment choices are the right ones?” 

He continues: “That’s shorthand for asking should we be spending £3bn on the A9, another £3bn on the A96, and maybe another £2bn on the A75? Because that will make zero difference to decarbonisation.” 

Docherty says that the A9 is being dualled to “a very high standard” to make it “almost a motorway”. He suggests that it could be done “less expensively” by having things like flat junctions and roundabouts, but he suspects the highest specification “is what people want”. 

Although the A9’s busiest point only sees around 15,000 cars per day, for the remote communities the route serves, cars will still need to use this road. And while that is the case, the issue of safety will remain at the forefront of those who use it regularly. 

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