Are we being taken for a ride?

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IT IS the year 2025, and a businessman from East Kilbride is preparing to head to work in Edinburgh. He gets into his car before 7am, hoping to escape the maximum 80p per kilometre charge which comes with using the roads during rush hour. He heads to the rail station at Croy. Arriving there, he parks in the 2,000 capacity multi-storey car park and hops on board one of the regular trains to Edinburgh. Within 18 minutes, he is pulling into Waverley.

In London, a tourist is planning a shopping trip to Glasgow. She thinks first of getting a flight - but heavy aviation taxes mean it comes at a massive cost. As a result, she decides instead to head to Euston where the Maglev train is waiting to leave. Two hours later, after reaching speeds of 300mph, she arrives at her destination.

At the other end of the country, a farmer from Wick is planning a trip south to Glasgow. With no public transport to speak of, he takes the car as usual, happy in the knowledge that at least the rural discount on the pay-as-you-go scheme means it won't cost that much.

This is not some fantasy future, but the coming reality, according to the Scottish Executive. This week, transport minister Tavish Scott will unveil a bold new National Transport Strategy (NTS), insisting it will completely overhaul the way Scots travel within 20 years. But the problem is this: on past form, can anyone trust them to deliver?

No one unlucky enough to have to use Scotland's creaking road and rail infrastructure on a regular basis will oppose radical changes. Delayed and overcrowded trains, clogged and roadworks-ridden motorways and a high daily dose of stress are the lot of the poor commuter. Ministers promise the new NTS will ease their pain - opening up comfortable and quick rail travel to more users, convincing drivers to leave the car at home and helping the environment at the same time. The strategy will resurrect the idea of a now nearly mythical "bullet train" connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh in a 30-minute journey; proposals for a high-speed two-and-a-half- hour rail connection from Scotland to London will be backed; and ministers will swing enthusiastically behind a national programme of road pricing, meaning those who insist on using their gas-guzzlers to get to work could be charged as much as an extra 80p per kilometre.

Across government circles and within the business community, a consensus is emerging: the transport system which has helped the country to become one of the most developed economies in the world can no longer support the growth of that economy. With people getting richer and buying more and bigger cars, physically the country can no longer take the strain. Last week, Sir Rod Eddington, the former chief executive of British Airways, published his report to the Treasury on Britain's future transport needs. Without action, he concluded, there will be a 31% increase in road traffic within 20 years. More than one in 10 journeys will "experience stop-start conditions". Britain plc, meanwhile, will lose nearly 30bn in wasted time.

Eddington travelled widely in Scotland preparing his report, tackling the notorious journey between Edinburgh and Glasgow by rail and road. This experience - and similar journeys across gridlocked Britain - helped convince the Australian of the need to overhaul the roads. "My view is that as congestion worsens, we will not be able to build our way out of this, particularly in the key pinch points," he told Scotland on Sunday. "I am not saying don't build roads. What you need is a mix of road pricing and new road build."

Professor David Begg, the former government adviser, calculates that to sustain the increases Eddington talks about, Britain's road-building programme would have to be increased five-fold. He says: "The trouble with that is, because 80% of congestion is in urban conurbations, where do you build those roads? What are you going to knock down to make way for them?"

The verdict is music to the ears of Douglas Alexander, the UK transport secretary, who has already set himself the daunting task of persuading a sceptical public that road pricing is necessary. A leaked letter this summer showed Alexander was considering legislation to permit road-user charging. Pilot schemes will be up and running within five years. The question now is not if, but when, according to Begg.

But the question is also: how? Three potential options are on offer for the government. The first involves the camera-based system currently in use in London, which was also suggested for Edinburgh before its congestion charge proposal was voted down. The second is the chip-in-the-car approach. Placed on a windscreen, the chip would be read by cameras on the gantries of tolled roads, automatically billing the driver for the journey travelled. But the third is what Eddington calls "the prize". "You would have a black box in the car with sat nav in it which can operate a charging regime reflecting where you are and at what time of day you are driving," he says.

Such a box is already being used by Norwich Union on a new form of car insurance: according to the distances driven, and the roads used, premiums go up or down. Now ministers are eagerly eyeing it up, hoping it will ultimately be possible to levy individual charges for individual roads according to the time of day. The M8 during rush-hour, for example, might attract the maximum charge, which Eddington has set at 80p per kilometre. A country road in Sutherland might be just a penny, or nothing at all. To balance the cost, car tax and fuel duty could be lowered, to make the new cost 'revenue neutral', a move the business-friendly Eddington is believed to support. But motoring groups are fearful that cash-hungry ministers will view it as another stealth tax.

"Overall, the revenues from road pricing should equal the reductions in motoring taxes," insists Neil Greig, of the AA Motoring Trust. "Motorists choosing to restrict the times and the roads they drive on should have the option to pay less in motoring taxes."

The trouble is that such a road-pricing system is still at least a decade away. And even then it might not work. Pilots have shown that the sat nav system often over-charges motorists, penalising them for journeys that were never taken. But it is clear that the political will is there - even if Alexander is unable to press forward, ministers in Edinburgh have indicated they will adopt the scheme and run it in Scotland alone. All that is holding back the tide now is technology.

If road pricing is the stick, then what is the carrot? Eddington argues that cash still needs to be spent on roads to ease motorists' misery. "You will need to widen motorways and there is a strong case to widen some of the significant routes." Inter-city road links, such as the M8, are one of three key areas Eddington wants to see addressed.

Eddington believes the blow should be softened for the motorist - and this is where he parts company with the Executive. North of the Border, ministers are committed to shifting people out of their cars, and investment in public transport - buses, trams, railways and ferries - has been prioritised ahead of roads. While Eddington claims he is "agnostic" over what mode of transport is used, Scott and his colleagues are not. And along with road pricing, they now aim to throw billions of pounds at the rail network in order to sugar the pill.

According to officials, Scott believes Eddington's proposals on rail to be "unambitious". Ministers in Edinburgh are now to press hard for such big infrastructure projects. They point to statistics which show that a total of four million people currently fly between Scotland and London every year - compared with just one million who take the train. They want to reverse this statistic, by offering a faster, more comfortable, but equally cheap, rail alternative. The model being used is France's TGV, the 200mph trains which criss-cross the country. One Executive official said: "The French would do it, and if they can do it, why can't we?" The idea of a two-and-a-half-hour journey is being aired. Scottish ministers will now lobby their Westminster counterparts to get it delivered.

Meanwhile, within Scotland, the Executive is once again pledging to construct a fast Edinburgh-Glasgow rail link - taking only 30 minutes from Queen street to Waverley. Existing train lines could be used, but an entirely new line will be considered if the current system cannot cope.

Many commuters will feel justified in being sceptical. It is now six years since the idea of a bullet train was first put to the Scottish public. And it is nearly four years since the Strategic Rail Authority first advanced the idea of an express London-Scotland line. And then there are the other transport projects which have run into the buffers, such as the long-delayed redevelopment of Waverley station. Will ministers' grandiose promises ever become reality?

If so, Eddington argues, the country's planning system will need to be overhauled to ensure projects do not get bogged down in endless inquiries and consultations. National and regional government bodies need to work together more effectively. And then the cash needs to be available when it is needed. Many will ask why it is only now, as eight years of unprecedented investment in Scotland starts to slow, that such mega-schemes are being considered - and whether they will genuinely be affordable.

Road tolls are another difficulty. It will require strong leadership to persuade a wary public that what was free should now be paid for. Ricky Henderson, the rueful transport convener at Edinburgh Council - which spectacularly failed to persuade residents of the merits of its own charging scheme - says: "The lesson is that if you put a ballot paper in front of someone and ask them whether they want to pay more money for something, they are likely to say no." He adds: "The government will have to lead this if people are going to be convinced."

The road to hell is paved with good intentions. Plenty of the latter abound in governing circles as they study Britain's gridlocked streets. Equally, it is surely no coincidence that, as the Holyrood election approaches, Labour and Lib Dem candidates will be able to campaign on the back of a glitzy new transport pledge. The question is this: can they persuade voters that they are not, once again, being taken for a ride?

The road ahead: what the experts want

DAVID LONSDALE Assistant director, CBI Scotland

There have been several positive developments in Scottish transport in recent years, including investments and commitments to critical road and rail initiatives.

Implicit in proposals for road pricing is an acceptance that roads will remain the dominant form of transport. Investment in extra capacity should be made accordingly.

We recognise the appeal of road pricing, incentivising changes in behaviour and ensuring more efficient use of the road network. Yet it cannot be the sole means of tackling congestion. Business has questions about how the revenue would be used and whether it would be offset by cuts in other taxes. Politicians must not use the debate as an excuse for inaction in the interim on the much-needed extra rail and road capacity.

DUNCAN McLAREN Chief executive, Friends of the Earth Scotland

Scotland can't tackle climate change unless it puts traffic growth into reverse. Transport accounts for almost one-fifth of Scottish climate emissions, and traffic levels on our already congested roads are set to grow further.

Implementing road pricing - alongside planning rules to cut the need to travel - could make a real difference.

If the Executive is genuine about reducing traffic levels and emissions, it must also ditch its environmentally destructive plans for Glasgow's M74 urban motorway and the Aberdeen western bypass and invest in better public transport.

NEIL GREIG Automobile Association

Road pricing has a mountain to climb to win round a sceptical public. Motorists already pay to use roads - 10p a mile in fuel taxes and up to 17.50 a month in road tax. But less than 20% of the 42bn raised each year from road users is spent on transport. Lack of investment is the underlying reason for the transport crisis highlighted by the Eddington Report.

Scottish drivers understand the concept of peak demand. Choice is the key to making road pricing acceptable - choice of when and how to travel, choice of quality public transport alternatives, choice to minimise family motoring costs, choice to pay more to travel at peak times but in less congestion.

DAVID BEGG Former government adviser on transport

If you don't bring in congestion charging, you would have to build five times the amount of roads that the government is planning to keep congestion down.What are you going to knock down to make way for them? You could build tunnels, but that is massively expensive.

Even if you doubled the amount of public transport by 2020 that will only take about 10% of traffic off the roads. Road pricing incentivises people to change their travel times by setting a price mechanism.