The recent opening of Britain’s newest railway by the Queen has been a remarkable PR coup for not just the Scottish government but also the railway industry north of the border. The re-opening of part of the borders railway line is a significant milestone, a re-birth of Scotland’s railway system after years of neglect. The line’s closure in 1968 was fiercely opposed by local campaigners. Border town Hawick resident Madge Elliot symbolised that battle when she led a high profile campaign culminating in a trip to Downing Street to deliver a petition to Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
Campaigners feared that if the closure of the main line from Edinburgh to Carlisle, a major artery to the south, was allowed to go ahead this would prove a catalyst for terminal decline. In a sense she was right Britain’s railways were under grave threat. Even after the Beeching axe fell a subsequent report by Sir David Serpell in 1982 considered closing 84% of the already slimmed down post Beeching network.
But as the political parties spat; the overly simplistic private versus public argument is trotted out with the same repetitive monotony as leaves on the line and the real debate is overlooked.
How different the political message is today. Hardly a week goes by without politicians trumpeting the success of the railway system pointing to all time high passenger numbers and record passenger satisfaction. But as the political parties spat; the overly simplistic private versus public argument is trotted out with the same repetitive monotony as leaves on the line and the real debate is overlooked.
Scotland’s railway network is quietly being rejuvenated through a mix of infrastructure upgrades, infill projects, new trains and as was widely publicised yesterday, the partial reopening of one of the most important main lines in the UK. Scotland’s railways are of course devolved allowing the SNP government to cock a snook at disjointed Westminster policy. Yesterday’s high profile news coverage of the Borders rail opening was a major coup for Holyrood and will have made uncomfortable watching on Westminster TV sets. While the Department for Transport is bogged down with grandiose and contentious schemes like HS2 and a third runway at Heathrow, Scotland has been quietly getting on with the business of showcasing its own less ambitious and highly popular projects.
Over the past decade new lines have sprung up north of the border almost as fast as nationalism has gripped the political agenda.
When the current Scotrail passenger franchise was recently re-let, operator Abellio spent nearly a year engaging with Business and the community to obtain their views. “This is your railway” was the message “tell us what you want and we will work with the government to deliver it.”
As a result new community rail partnership bodies have sprung up. Scarcely used lines in the highlands which traditionally saw only a couple of trains a day are now thriving commuter routes. Regular trains run from isolated communities into Inverness every weekday breathing new life into otherwise economically dead small towns and villages. In Wales there is a similar, be it less ambitious model.
A quick trip across the border from Scotland and its gleaming new infrastructure to Northern England and you could be forgiven for thinking you have crossed the iron curtain the in 1980s.
The picture is very different in England though where central government micro manages every minutia with investment largely confided to the South East.
A quick trip across the border from Scotland and its gleaming new infrastructure to Northern England and you could be forgiven for thinking you have crossed the iron curtain the in 1980sThe Northern Rail franchise is ironically also run by Dutch company Abellio. However unlike its Scottish sister company, Northern Rail has some of the most clapped out trains in the country. Residents of Cumbria and Northumberland can only look on with envy in the vein hope that Westminster shows them the same generosity as their Gaelic neighbours.
The borders line has cost less that £300m to construct, a fraction of the proposed cost of HS2 or a third runway at Heathrow. The business case for many of the Scottish schemes may be at best somewhat opaque; often based on ideology rather than perceived business sense. But what Westminster lacks is vision, Holyrood on the other hand exudes feisty Braveheart confidence; optimism that appears to be winning minds as well as hearts.
The Scottish Government has certainly capitalised on this new ‘we can do it’ mood north of the border. There is now an acceptance by politicians of all colours on both sides of the border that many rural lines can only operate with subsidy but it’s the Scots that are taking the lead in making their assets work for them.
With George Osborne’s vision for a Northern Powerhouse now firmly on the backburner Westminster must stop dithering and get to grips with its rural railway lines once and for all. Nationalisation will not solve the problem more than the current private system; what is needed is rail infrastructure investment that will then drive growth.
Strict fiscal discipline is a must in an industry that is renowned for wasting public money. However the time has come to scrap the John Major’s ideology driven expectation whereby every bit of the railway system should make money.
However galling it might be for the UK government it should learn from the Scottish model. Britain needs a new low cost ‘high tech’ digital railway infrastructure so trains can run more frequently so that supply can match demand and in so doing support the economy.
Such a combination would deliver the very best of the private and public sector and give the whole of the UK and integrated, cost effective and efficient railway system in which we can all be proud.