Network Rail’s vision 12 years ago, which pre-dated the UK government’s HS2 project now underway, saw a London to Edinburgh/Glasgow line as the best value for money option.
A dedicated HS2 line will currently be built only as far as north west England, but the Scottish government lobbied hard from the start for further sections to be built or existing lines upgraded so high-speed trains could connect Scotland’s two biggest cities with London in three hours, compared to around four-and-a-half hours at present.
Minsters’ keenness soon turned to frustration because of the lack of progress, with the then Infrastructure Secretary Nicola Sturgeon vowing in 2012 that she wouldn't wait for Westminster to bring high-speed rail to Scotland and would build a line here by 2024.
A deal was reached in 2016 for the Scottish and UK governments to work towards three-hour journeys, and things seemed to back on course – until a surprise revelation at a high-speed rail conference I chaired in Edinburgh in October that this collaborative work had been halted.
A Transport Scotland official, who seemed as frustrated as Ms Sturgeon had been nine years ago, told the meeting he had been instructed to stop this work in 2019.
He said: “The UK government hasn’t stopped working on cross-Border activity. But Transport Scotland, from being in a place of one of the leaders of the agenda, is now not part of what’s going on.”
The Scottish government did not dispute that when I wrote a story about it days later.
Scottish Conservatives transport spokesperson Graham Simpson, who was also at the conference, raised the issue at First Minister’s Questions, referring to the UK government’s Union connectivity review into improving UK transport links, noting the two governments had “agreed to develop options” for three-hour journeys.
However, Ms Sturgeon told him the alleged instruction to halt work “is just not the case”.
When Mr Simpson later requested the First Minister correct the Official Record (of Holyrood proceedings), transport minister Graeme Dey wrote back: “It is misleading to suggest officials have been instructed to stop working to reduce cross-Border journey times.
“I have engaged with UK government ministers to discuss cross-Border, high-speed rail options, and Transport Scotland officials have continued to engage with UK government rail franchisee, West Coast Partnership, which is instructed by the
UK government, to prepare plans for cross-Border services coming from HS2.”
I understand the discussion includes about where HS2 will join the west coast main line north of Manchester, and plans for a depot in the Annandale area of Dumfries and Galloway.
Transport Scotland said its high-speed rail work was now continuing as part of its latest strategic transport projects review, whose recommendations are due to be published by February.
But if the agency is now doing this work separately from its Whitehall counterpart, could we end up back at square one when the findings come out, especially as HS2 has just been truncated with the removal of its eastern leg to Leeds that would have potentially connected to the east coast main line and Scotland?