Paul Tetlaw, Policy Forum Convenor, Transform Scotland looks at the plans for decarbonising Scotland’s railway…

Plans for decarbonising Scotland’s railway network are to be warmly welcomed. However, many challenges lie ahead for the railway to play its part in a truly sustainable transport network.

The action plan

Transport Scotland’s ‘Rail Services Decarbonisation Action Plan’, published on 28 July, is indeed to be welcomed. It builds on the successful electrification programme in Central Scotland in recent years and is in marked contrast to the ‘dither and delay’ approach so evident south of the border.

It is well worth noting that Scotland’s two main cities are now connected by five electrified routes and the Hitachi 385 electric trains are proving to be the most reliable on the UK networks.

A feature of the most recent route electrifications has been the gradually reducing cost per mile of each scheme as more experience has been gained. A continuous programme of electrification is essential to build confidence and trust in the supply chain and that in turn will help to deliver innovation and further cost reductions. By committing to such a programme of decarbonisation and rolling stock replacement, Transport Scotland will create many new career opportunities and high quality jobs in Scotland.

Capacity enhancements

To gain full value from the decarbonisation programme and achieve real modal shift, the Action Plan needs to be accompanied by a series of capacity enhancements that will allow faster, more frequent and longer passenger and freight trains to run on the network. The Highland Main Line from Perth to Inverness provides a perfect example of what is required.

Here we have had political promises of significantly faster journey times to ensure that ‘railways should be able to compete with roads’ and yet a huge investment programme of £3 billion is instead focussed on the parallel A9 road making journey times there by car and lorry even quicker and encouraging modal shift away from the railway to the road. This is hardly consistent with the declared intentions of the Scottish Government.

The railway itself is largely single track. Passing places have been removed over the years, and those that remain are too short for an efficient freight service. Extra passenger services have been added but the line is being worked to capacity. Any delays have serious knock-on consequences. While the Victorian-era semaphore signals may be of interest to the railway historian, they certainly do not speak of a 21st Century inter-city route.

This example serves to illustrate the urgent need for the Scottish Government’s policy objectives to be matched by appropriate funding priorities.

Future structure of the railway

The Corona Crisis has resulted in emergency measures being implemented by Governments at both Westminster and Holyrood to support the rail franchises, but these measures are clearly not a long-term option for the railway.

Prior to this a number of franchises were in financial difficulties and it is clear that a new structure is now required for the railway. This is not the place for a detailed discussion on that matter. There is however a widespread belief that closer integration between train and track is required and that any future structure allows for long-term planning and investment in the network and rolling stock free from the short-term whims that may arise from changes of government or even of individual ministers.

Beyond that it will be important to consider the railway in Scotland as an integral part of the whole public transport sector so that closer integration and consequent ease of use creates a network equipped for the challenges ahead.

A sustainable transport system fit for the 21st Century

The Action Plan rightly highlights the challenges posed by climate change, the need for improvements to local air quality, and the associated need for modal shift away from the plane, the car and the lorry to more sustainable modes. Equally valid is the need to tackle the ever greater incidence of obesity in the population and the associated diseases – and costs – resulting from obesity. Whilst poor diet may not be something that the transport sector might be expected to tackle, inactive lifestyles and poor local air quality are most certainly a consequence of our present transport system. Investment in safe active travel routes should go hand in hand with investment in public transport networks so that the shift to more sustainable modes is approached from all angles. Active travel and public transport are natural partners and should be combined as key elements of a sustainable transport system that delivers lifestyles and a quality of life fit for the 21st Century.

The Scottish Government possesses all the powers and levers to make this happen. It must exercise them to ensure that demand management measures are applied to unsustainable modes, and to prioritise investment on sustainable modes. Failing to do so will result in a failure to achieve the intended modal shifts.

The Action Plan is a credit to Transport Scotland and highlights the more progressive approach being adopted in Scotland than south of the border. However it must be accompanied by a strategy for capacity increases in the rail network and the creation of enhanced and integrated public transport and active travel systems as key building blocks of a sustainable transport system.

Paul Tetlaw is Policy Forum Convenor at Transform Scotland

Tel: 07767 343116 

Email: [email protected]