Alastair Dalton: High-speed rail will arrive but when?

RAIL plan still on track, but no-one knows when it will arrive, says Alastair Dalton

RAIL plan still on track, but no-one knows when it will arrive, says Alastair Dalton

The irony about plans for high-speed rail in Scotland is they have been stuck on a slow line for years.

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When British Airways boss Willie Walsh told me it wouldn’t happen in his lifetime, I laughed in disbelief. But that’s now seven years ago, and we may still be some considerable way from seeing it arrive.

It’s true the SNP is very keen on extending HS2 north of the Border, and I’ve never seen infrastructure secretary Keith Brown so vexed about a transport issue as when he was grappling with the UK government to get Scotland included.

Relations seem to have improved, and a joint study on cutting Edinburgh/Glasgow-London journeys below three hours has just been completed, according to the Scottish Government.

Officials have also told me that as a result, Mr Brown remains on course, as signalled last year, to announce next month “the next steps in the realisation of his objective of ensuring Scotland’s inclusion within a high-speed rail network”.

I am advised this will also address how the SNP’s planned Edinburgh-Glasgow high-speed line – announced in 2012 before the joint study started – would fit into the cross-Border project.

The Liberal Democrats have claimed the Edinburgh-Glasgow scheme has been ditched, on the basis of work on it being put on hold until the results of the study are known.

But, I’m told by someone in the know outside government that we should be taking ministerial statements at face value, at least for now. This includes transport minister Derek Mackay telling MSPs on Tuesday that the Edinburgh-Glasgow plan was “inextricably” linked to cross-Border route options. What I’m hearing is that ministers want to negotiate with Westminster first to get the best deal.

However, I remember thinking when Nicola Sturgeon, the then infrastructure secretary, announced that the Scottish scheme could be completed by 2024, how wildly ambitious it seemed. It appeared to be more like a two-fingers gesture to the UK government than any serious project, particularly when officials were subsequently unable to tell me how much it might cost, and because it would cut journeys by only a few minutes more than after improvements under way on the existing main line.

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I asked Mr Mackay yesterday if the new line could still be built by 2024, but he wouldn’t give me an answer, saying that was irrelevant since it was now tied into the cross-Border plans.

So much, so clear, but let’s not hold our breath about what happens next.

A key aspect of the joint study is that it was to look at upgrading existing lines as well as a new high-speed route – and may be much cheaper.

The other point is – who pays? The UK government is already spending more than £40 billion on HS2 from London to Leeds and Manchester.

Even if they fund an extension, or line upgrades, to the Border, there’s still the Scottish leg to cover. The most tricky and expensive bit would be the section into Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Mr Brown said last year high-speed rail could cost Scotland up to £10 billion. That’s two thirds of the total transport budget since the SNP came to power nine years ago, and it already has huge commitments for other projects over the next 15 years like dualling the A9 and A96.

So Mr Walsh, still a youthful 54, may yet be untroubled by bullet trains in Scotland, or at least not until he is long retired and has the spare time to enjoy the trip.