Brian Wilson: Side tracked from the real priority

GRANDIOSE announcements divert attention from a failure to deliver on more realistic public projects, writes Brian Wilson

GRANDIOSE announcements divert attention from a failure to deliver on more realistic public projects, writes Brian Wilson

Television cameras love trains – which must explain why so much uncritical coverage was accorded by our national broadcasters to this week’s nonsense about cutting journey times between Glasgow and Edinburgh to half an hour.

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The pertinent questions in such circumstances are always the same – when, why, how much? Two previous reports have come up with figures of £2 billion and £7bn, depending on the technology used. The reply for the purposes of this week’s photo-opportunity was: “We don’t know – it’s only at the planning stage”.

On the question of “when”, there is no need to rush to catch the train. The headline answer is 2024, which has the great political virtue of being long after anybody around today is going to be held to account. If you are tempted to believe 2024, I would suggest consulting the history of such announcements. There have been plenty of them.

Then there is the question of “why?”. On that matter at least, which does not involve inconvenient concepts like billions or decades, Ms Nicola Sturgeon was in no doubt: “We will not wait for Westminster to bring high speed rail to us….”. So we are going to have our own wee bit even if it doesn’t join up with anyone else’s.

Maybe that’s a good idea and there really will be indeterminate billions to spend on new tracks, trains and stations to cut the journey time by ten minutes which, by then, would be the actual gain – at best. But that debate should surely take place – and be reported – on a planet loosely adjacent to reality and for better reasons than scoring a political point over “Westminster”.

Listening to Monday’s hype, the reasonably-well informed observer might have wondered if he or she was suffering from déjà vu or merely confusion. Was there not a very similar announcement just a few months ago? Are there going to be two High Speed Rail Links between Glasgow and Edinburgh? At this point, it is time to consult the cuttings, as we used to say.

Sure enough, as recently as 4 July this year, we find Keith Brown, the Scottish transport minister, “visiting Queen Street Station” to announce the electrification of the line to Edinburgh, “cutting ten minutes from journey times”, the press release announced proudly. A few minutes research confirmed that this was at least the third time the same project had been announced since 2007.

The response in July was less than ecstatic since everyone who knew anything about it understood that the latest announcement was actually a downgrading of the previous ones – fewer trains, 40-minutes instead of the 35 first advertised and severe doubts about a 2016 completion.

However, Mr Brown’s plan does involve transforming Queen Street into “a world-class transport hub”.

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All of this sounds like a decent deliverable scheme to be going on with. A 40-minute journey, a few more carriages, a tarting-up of stations, wi-fi on all services and a great improvement in the coffee would satisfy most travellers who use the Queen Street-Waverley service. Six an hour would have been better than four but we can’t have everything. And at least Mr Brown put a cost on his scaled-down model – £650 million.

It would be good just to get on with it and maybe it could be finished by – let’s be optimistic – 2018. But, hang on… that would leave just six years before it will supposedly be superceded by the multi-billion scheme which this week’s photo-opportunity was about and which might cut a further ten minutes off the Glasgow-Edinburgh journey as an unconnected part of the HS2 network.

For good measure, a study by Glasgow City Council has identified High Street as the best – and possibly only – site for an HS2 station so we would have the “world-class transport hub” a few hundred yards along the road at Queen Street while an entirely new complex would be required to accommodate the even-Higher Speed link that was touted this week.

Does this make an ounce of sense against other priorities?

On current plans, the HS2 will not reach Manchester until 2034, far less points north. This does not mean that Scotland will not benefit since, by then, the journey time between London and Glasgow should be down to 3 hours 38 minutes with just two minutes longer to Edinburgh.

It makes complete sense to argue for a next phase, or a concurrent one, which would reduce the journey time still further.

The preferred option of the Scottish Government, as well as Glasgow and Edinburgh councils, is for HS2 to take a Y-formation as it heads north with a split at Carstairs. The cost of this is anyone’s guess and delivery will depend on a convincing economic case being made over the coming years. From a Scottish perspective, work has already been done and the Fast Track Scotland report last year put a value of £24.8bn on a high speed rail link.

This report was published by Transport Scotland and argued “the clear benefits which Scotland’s inclusion in a fully UK high speed rail network could bring for the whole of Scotland”. That is surely beyond dissent. But it also begs an interesting question. What is the rationale for the United Kingdom if Scotland is, within a few years, no longer to be part of it?

According to Ms Sturgeon’s political vision, Scotland will have become a separate state a full decade before we are even shuttling between Glasgow and Edinburgh in half an hour. At that point, our economic welfare will be no business of the state we left behind. We will be rivals for investment. There is no obvious reason why they would build a High Speed Railway line to Berwick in order to help us out of our difficulties.

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The whole issue of transport links should become a metaphor for wider inter-dependency. What possible sense does it make to create borders where none at present exist when we have such a heavy economic dependency on maintaining unity? If a High Speed Rail link with London is worth £24.8bn to the Scottish economy, then that seems to me a reason for strengthening the relationship rather than ending it.

Meanwhile back in the real world, the Scottish Government confirmed that due to it having taken “longer than anticipated for projects to reach procurement and construction”, public spending on schools and hospitals in the current year will be £20m as opposed to the £353m previously announced. Just to be clear, these figures do not contain a misprint. No wonder a diversion was required.