Scotland’s railway booming

For such a small country, Scotland is blessed with an extensive railway system, but because it was built by the competitive private railways of the 19th century it is not always well coordinated or tailored to the needs of the 21st century.

The future of the railways in Scotland, with lots of plans for investment, should be rosy. The situation is helped by the recent reorganisation which handed most of the responsibility for transport to one organisation, Transport Scotland, an agency of the Scottish government with responsibility for roads and rail, a much nearer approximation of Prescott’s Holy Grail of an integrated transport system than anything there has ever been south of the border. However, there is a risk in this set up too, since in this period of potential cutbacks to the transport budget, it may be the big railway schemes that will suffer rather than road projects. The next few months may well be a test of Scotland’s resolve to keep on developing its railway.

While commuters may moan at ropey old trains and tourists in the Highlands complain about the paucity of services, there is a buzz about the rail scene in Scotland. There is a genuine political commitment across all the parties to the railways north of the border where they are seen as an essential public service in contrast to the attitude in England where money is only ever begrudgingly allocated to the rail projects.

Reopenings are an interesting example of this. Whereas in England there have been very few schemes since privatisation in the mid 1990s, in Scotland there have already been successful reopenings such as the Larkhall line and the Stirling – Alloa – Kincardine, with several others, notably the Borders line, on the stocks. Bill Reeve, the director of rail strategy for Transport Scotland, is convinced that the political atmosphere in Scotland on transport is completely different to that in Whitehall and that the crucial aspect which ensures support for rail is devolution because local people will always be keen to get investment in rail: ‘Devolution tends to result in an increase in transport investment.’

There are really two completely different sorts of railways in Scotland, the heavily used routes in the central belt and the quieter lines in the rest of the country. Interestingly, both types of railway are seen as vital to the economy and feature in investment plans.

Obviously most of the money will be concentrated on the heavily used routes, which suffer from the legacy of the haphazard way the railways were built, with at one time five big companies battling against each other.

Most notably there are three routes between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and none of them is particularly fast, with the best timing being around 50 minutes. That could change soon. There are plans to electrify the Falkirk route and reduce journey times to just 35 minutes, but they are at an early stage. The rail links to Glasgow and Edinburgh airport are likely to be expensive, but are at least on the agenda.

The Crossrail scheme in Glasgow to link up various parts of the 19th century network in the city is another attempt to remedy the lack of coordination in the system but has been mired in controversy. It would cost perhaps a couple of hundred million but it has both strong supporters, who see it as an obvious way of creating more journey opportunities for Glasgow commuters and opponents who argue that it would eat up capacity for not much advantage. So far it has not been included in the list of strategic projects to be carried out, but its supporters, most prominently Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, hope the Scottish government will reverse that decision.

It is noticeable that the railways are higher up the political agenda in Scotland than in England but the debate has a different aspect. Unlike south of the border where it is improvements in punctuality and reliability that have been the main focus, often at the cost of extending the timetable, in Scotland there is an emphasis on speeding up journeys because of the need to attract more people on to the railways. The car, in a country with such a low population density will always be a strong competitor and therefore train travel has to be made attractive in order to increase its share of passengers.

  • RapidAssistant

    The Glasgow Airport rail link is now under way, but the Edinburgh Airport rail link, is more or less dead now on the huge costs of having to tunnel beneath the runway, and the final nail in the coffin was that you can’t run DMUs in tunnel for any huge length. Ironically, now with Airdrie-Bathgate now underway and the decision having now been taken to tentatively progress with Glasgow-Edinburgh via Falkirk electrification, nearly all the main lines out of Waverley station will be fully “knitted up” in a few years time which would have made the idea more viable.

    Glasgow Crossrail is something which has become an orphaned idea – now that SPT doesn’t have its rail powers anymore I personally think it’s doubtful it will happen now, despite the perceived benefits. Many think that upgrade and electrification of the Shotts-Edinburgh line would deliver far more “bang for the buck” in that it would open up the eastern railway network to that of South Glasgow, and also provide a valuable diversionary route for the Glasgow and Edinburgh branches of the WCML.

  • Anoop

    Part of Edinburgh’s tram scheme seems to have been a victim of the cost-cutting – let us hope this is just a temporary delay and not a permanent cancellation.

  • RapidAssistant

    The tram scheme has been a sham from the start. The airport rail link was kiboshed by the SNP government as it wasn’t deemed value for money, and the saving was directed towards the tram which sort-of went near the airport as a “consolation prize”. But the current funding package is only for the first phase, and there is doubts over whether the second and third phases will ever happen.

  • The Thin Controller

    Agreed in re the Edinburgh trams project. The LRTA is the major group arguing for the return of light rail schemes, but they probably don’t appreciate just how *hated* the Edinburgh trams scheme has become. The utility diversions are a major sore point – the scheme’s construction has not been at all well-managed.

  • Dan

    Thin Controller – the Nottingham Utility diversions were a nightmare too – seemed to go on for ages and were disruptive – but it’s amazing how soon that is all forgotten (it was only your post that reminded me they had ever happened!) – and the end result was well well worth it. Of course people won’t realise that during the disruption phase – but then people don’t like change full stop.

  • John Withill

    Hello again Chaps

    Has there been any recent scheme prposed to reopen the Dumfries- Strarare Port road – or perhaps a realignment more along the route of the A75 ? I was on holiday up there recently and couldn’t believe the volume of heavy road traffic on the A75 . I then looked at my OS maps … it has been done before … what the hell did they rip it up for ?



  • John Withill

    Sorry I spelled Straraer incorrectly … you know what I meant

  • RapidAssistant

    John – as a semi-native of the Galloway area I can tell you that there have been various mutterings at local level over the years to reopen the Dumfries-Stranraer branch (notionally it’s part of the WCML), but it’s come to nothing. It’s not a line that has had any real political weight thrown behind it, although one could argue the case for reopening is at least as strong as the Waverley route as the distant South West region of Scotland was largely left without a railway following the Beeching cuts. As far as I’m aware the trackbed has been mostly preserved. The A75’s appalling safety record has been used as an argument – this is the main route for Northern Ireland bound traffic from the North of England; yet there’s the rub that most people going to Belfast want to take their cars with them – therefore having a railway would do little to offset this.

    Personally I doubt it given that there is are question marks hanging over even the existing Ayr-Stranraer line:

  • Derek

    The tram line thats left for edinburgh doesnt reach a lot of folks,its unviable now and a waste of money,Glasgow on the other handhas a better biz case for light rail form it has plenty of disused lines and some tunnels in the city itself.

  • RapidAssistant

    I was in Edinburgh a few weeks ago for the start of the Fringe, and couldn’t believe the mess that Princes Street is in…….and as I said above the whole thing is turning into a bit of a sham as you say it doesnt actually go anywhere useful unless it turns out to be part of a much bigger scheme.