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5 June 2013

Transforming Scotland's Railways article

The Scottish Parliament recently debated the state of the nation’s railways. It’s certainly clear that there has been progress: the reopening of the Airdrie-Bathgate line has been a success, reconstruction of the Borders Railway is well underway, while patronage growth both on railways within Scotland and on Anglo-Scottish routes demonstrates that there is strong demand for further expansion. Scottish transport minster Keith Brown can personally take credit for delivering progress on initiatives such as installing Wi-Fi on more trains; resolving split ticketing anomalies; and the introduction to Scotland of Community Rail Partnerships.

However, while there are further plans for improving the railways in the Central Belt, no similar ambition is being shown for routes to the north of Scotland. The existing journey time from Edinburgh to Aberdeen is almost an hour longer than the equivalent distance from Edinburgh to Newcastle. Journey times from the Central Belt to the northern cities of Perth, Dundee, Inverness and Aberdeen remain uncompetitive with the roads — and this position is due to worsen.

In the Parliamentary debate, the Government made the grand claim that it was “Transforming Scotland’s Railways”. But for this truly to happen, journey times need to be competitive with parallel road routes. In this, we agree with Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond when he said in 2008 that “railways must at least compete with roads”.

Journey times to Inverness are particularly poor. The rail journey for Edinburgh-Inverness averages 3 hours 35 minutes. The AA’s Route Planner suggests that the equivalent road journey can be made in less than that (3 hours 28 minutes) — but this of course assumes that road users are obeying the speed limit, and it’s well-known that this is generally not the case. Indeed, Transport Scotland has indicated that the average journey time for cars on the Inverness-Perth leg can be as little as 90 minutes, which is not only a full hour quicker than the AA’s estimates, but also assumes an average speed of over 75mph!

The Government’s current investment plans will only make the railway more uncompetitive. It has recently committed to a £3 billion dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness. This will substantially reduce journey times by road and hence further weaken the position of the railway for both passengers and freight.

Our belief is that in the 21st century, Scotland’s cities should be connected by a modern and efficient rail network that is at the very least competitive with road transport.

Given the Government’s ambition to dual the A9 road, for rail to compete on this corridor, a ‘game changer’ is required. That is why we have been promoting our ‘Inter-City Express’ proposal for inclusion in the review of the country’s National Planning Framework. This would include bringing forward the delayed electrification and reinstatement of double-track on routes to the north. But even this won’t create a level playing field. The journey between Edinburgh and Perth will remain slow and tortuous without a significant intervention. To achieve this, we need to see reinstatement of the direct fast route between Edinburgh and Perth closed in the Beeching era.

Only the reinstatement of this link will truly open up routes to the north from Edinburgh. It would bring a 35-minute reduction in the journey time from Edinburgh to Perth and Inverness; provide the opportunity to reduce journey times to Aberdeen; and allow the creation of new stations at key growth areas such as Kinross and Bridge of Earn. It would also allow the creation of a key hub on the inter-city network at Perth and make proper use of this iconic station.

Whilst we appreciate that there has been some development along the route, we understand that it currently remains largely intact and that replacement of the original route should be no more complex than that of the Borders Railway; furthermore, the route mileage is significantly shorter (22 as opposed to 31 for the Borders Railway). Some sections of new alignment may be necessary but these would be modest in comparison to the new high-speed rail route now being proposed by the Government between Edinburgh and Glasgow. And the Scottish Government is certainly not short of cash to invest in transport projects: with £3 billion promised for the A9 and a further £3 billion for dualling of the A96 between Aberdeen and Inverness, it would be just daft for the Government to insist otherwise.

So while there has been some progress in improving Scotland’s railways, to truly “Transform Scotland’s Railways”, it will require the Scottish Government to review its current plans for upgrades to rail routes north of the Central Belt in order that railways between Scotland’s cities can at least compete with the roads.