Rail 614: Scottish railway plans are ambitious but at risk

Scotland is a very different country when it comes to thinking on transport. We are always hearing reports of line reopenings, electrification schemes and tram projects which creates a widespread feeling that Scotland has a different attitude towards public transport than Whitehall.

To check this out, I took a trip up on the overnight sleeper operated by First Scotrail which these days is a far more comfortable experience than it used to be thanks to continuous welded rail. There was, though, a hitch as we were stuck for two hours near Milton Keynes and we arrived in Glasgow 90 minutes late, which meant I almost missed my first appointment. It must be said, though, that the on board staff were excellent, first delaying breakfast to a more comfortable hour than 6 30 and later assiduously handing out compensation forms, something which other operators rarely bother to do.

Transport in Scotland has recently been reorganised with most of the responsibility being handed over to Transport Scotland, an agency of the Scottish government with responsibility for roads and rail, a much nearer approximation of Prescott’s Holy Grail than anything there has ever been south of the border.

Bill Reeve, Transport Scotland’s director of rail strategy, is convinced that the political atmosphere in Scotland on transport is completely different to that in Whitehall. He ought to know as he once worked for Richard Bowker’s ill-fated Strategic Rail Authority: ‘The debate about transport in Scotland starts in a different place. In England, it’s still about whether transport and railways really matter. Here it is assumed that it matters and the debate is on how to improve the situation.’ There is too, he suggests, a general agreement between the parties about the need to improve the transport situation.

Mr Reeve reckons that devolution is a key aspect of this consensus: ‘Devolution tends to result in an increase in transport investment.’ Indeed, that is true across Europe, too, where many regional authorities, which have more power than our local councils and extend over a wider area, promote local transport schemes because they are electorally popular. Even in the UK, the substantial investment by passenger transport authorities and by Transport for London in rail bears out this point.

Scotland’s attitude to railways is more like that in Continental Europe rather than the tight fisted policy that has always emanated from Whitehall, whether under a Tory or Labour government. In Europe, public transport is seen as a necessity and a service to be paid for out of taxes if necessary. Similarly, in Scottish elections, it is arguments between different schemes, rather than over the general need for transport infrastructure, which come to the fore. The Scottish Nationalists, for example, were against the Edinburgh tram scheme, although, despite their narrow victory in the election, they were forced to back down because of the need to retain Green support for their coalition.

Despite this overall support for rail, Scotland has a lower market share than south of the border, partly because it is a thinly populated country but also because its history – boasting, a century ago, five large poorly connected and squabbling rail companies – left it with network that is difficult to manage and coordinate. There are, for example, already three routes between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and an additional one, via Airdrie and Bathgate, will be completed in 2010 thanks to the reopening of part of the line. Currently it takes 50 minutes to travel by train between Scotland’s main two cities which Transport Scotland reckons is not good enough to compete with the parallel M8 motorway and wants to reduce it to 35 mins for the fastest trains. That would require electrification for the Falkirk route, the one currently used by the fastest trains, as a starting point, but would also entail other changes to the schedule which, according to some railway managers, would greatly damage the quality of service from intermediate stations.

A scheme in Glasgow to link up various parts of the 19th century network is more controversial. There have been longstanding plans to facilitate cross Glasgow connections by creating a link using a redundant bridge and building a small section of line. The Glasgow Crossrail scheme as it has become known 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.

At least, though, it is on the agenda and has stimulated debate in an environment that is distinctly more open to such projects than in England. Indeed, rail supporters in Scotland have been spurred on by the success of recent reopenings. I attended the ceremony marking the inauguration of the Larkhall-Milngavie line on the outskirts of Glasgow four years ago and it has proved to be a fantastic success, exceeding original predictions by 50 per cent.

Unlike in England where it is punctuality and reliability that have been the 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 onto the railways. The car, in a country with such a low density will always be a strong competitor and therefore train travel has to be made attractive in order to increase rail’s modal share.

That is why the debates in Scotland are over how to increase capacity, not whether that is desirable. Transport Scotland produced a rail strategy document last year which is the kind of plan that the SRA attempt to develop but which was always restricted by its lack of independence from the Treasury. Scotland’s Railways like all such documents suffers from a certain wooliness and lack of definite commitment, but nevertheless at least represents an attempt to develop a coherent plan.

Having an agency such as Transport Scotland gives a great impetus to the coordination of transport policy. It is, as Mr Reeve put it, a combination between the Department for Transport and the Highways Agency, and while it is still bedding down, the organisation’s ability to make decisions across the transport spectrum is a vast improvement on the uncoordinated approach in England. Moreover, as it is an agency of the Scottish government, it does have a limited measure of independence.

However, do not be fooled into thinking however, that it guarantees that railways would definitely get their rightful share of investment. One of the SNP’s commitments is to build a second Forth road bridge and with the UK government only willing to fund half the estimated £2bn cost. Moreover, in a bit of crass political populism, the SNP abolished the toll for people using the existing bridge, which means the only source of funding the second one is the taxpayer, which may then eat into the ambitious rail projects set out in Scotland’s Railways. Crucially, too, the different projects set out in the overall transport strategy (of which there are 29) have yet to be prioritised and that’s where the decisions get difficult. Scotland, therefore, may represent progress from the narrow minded thinking south of the border, but that does not mean the fundamental tough decisions over funding major infrastructure can be wished away.

Virgin takes toilets seriously but problem remains

This month I’ve been on a bit of a roll, as it were, on toilet issues (see my website for Guardian article on why we should no longer use toilet paper) and now I have finally got to the bottom of the Virgin toilet debacle. Well almost. This is a long running saga which I have mentioned several times in this column before. Basically, the toilets in the Pendolinos have a history of overflowing and blockage, causing unpleasant smells in the corridors outside. Virgin staff have clearly either lost their aural senses or have been instructed to deny there is any problem, since when I have complained about it – particularly about the toilet near the shop in the middle of the train – they have denied that there is a problem.

But there is, and after I boarded a train recently in Manchester where the smell was particularly bad, I approached Virgin whose PR, Arthur Leathley, arranged for me to drop in at Euston to meet his toilet expert, Gary Hambling, the head of engineering. We went sniffing up and down a couple of randomly selected trains and found one toilet closed ‘out of order’ and another with what I felt was an unacceptable odour. It was the one near the shop which, according to Mr Hambling, is by far the busiest on every train and therefore the most problematic.

But surely, I said, that should have been predicted and other trains do not seem to suffer in the same way? Mr Leathley accepted that in the early days of the introduction of the Pendolinos, there was a major problem and many of the trains were in an unacceptable state. Now, he says, after the basic design error of pipes which became blocked too easily had been overcome, ‘we have very few letters about this, a tiny percentage of overall complaints’. Mr Hambling said that considerable amount of work had gone into tackling this issue and the fundamental issue had been resolved. The remaining smell was a result of overuse and difficulties with cleaning although he stressed the carpets outside the toilets are deep cleaned regularly. There was now a programme to replace them and a £2m had been spent on a system to ensure that toilets could be cleared at the depots every night rather than every few days.

However, despite Virgin’s obvious readiness to try to tackle the problem, including spending considerable amounts of money, there still seems to be a fundamental flaw with these toilets. Perhaps having carpets outside these rather delicate toilets is not a good idea but ultimately it is clear that a new design is needed. Let’s hope that Hitachi does not make the same mistake and, perhaps, takes advantage by introducing Japanese style toilets which do not require paper (using water and warm air instead) and therefore would not block up. Now that would be a real innovative solution but I suspect the great unwashed British public would not find it acceptable.

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