I’ll be hitting the road, Jack, next week. I’m hoping my trip up and down the A9 will be one of my last. Now we’re on a decent bus route and Toddler is a confident walker we really don’t have any need for the family jalopy. Next week’s trip involves the lugging of garden gear so the boot will come in handy.
There’s a mantra that if you live in the Highlands you need a car, and by extension if you want to get to and from the Highlands you need to dual the A9.
And why are they doing it? To improve safety and boost the economy. Or at least that’s what supporters of the scheme tend to say.
But where is the evidence that an extra lane here and there between Inverness and Perth will ‘boost the economy’? And what does that mean anyway? Boosting the economy isn’t the same as closing the increasing gap between the least well off and the rich. Boosting the economy isn’t the same as ensuring sustainable skilled employment. And boosting the economy isn’t anything to do with protecting the fabulous environment through which dozens of miles of tarmac will be ploughed.
Safety? What’s wrong with average speed cameras? They’ve been used elsewhere with dramatic life-saving results.
I appreciate it’s going to be impossible to stop the dualling and in fact it’s heresy to hold a position other than agreeing the dualling is great news.
Even the Cairngorms National Park Authority is quietly in favour of it – at least they haven’t objected. This is the same authority that came out against the Beauly-Denny replacement pylons. If you look at the National Park’s Draft Plan it states: “The National Park will be a leader in sustainable rural transport. Infrastructure and provision will meet the needs of residents, businesses and visitors and strengthen the regional interaction of the Park. Barriers to transport and dependence on private car use will have reduced, helping to facilitate sustainable development.”
I wonder how creating a dual carriageway through the middle of the park is sustainable and how it will reduce dependence on the private car. Perhaps by ‘helping to facilitate sustainable development’ they mean open up land for more housing?
Anyway, let’s examine the economic case. Research was conducted by the consultants Scott Wilson for HIE and Hitrans, in theory to support the dualling. But the fine details of the research are never mentioned. Here’s what they say:
“The stress of driving” on the A9 is a common complaint. (So why not make it easier for people to not drive? There is no guarantee a dual A9 will be stress-free!)
The research warns there may be some centralisation in major centres of local trade and retailing such as Inverness, causing smaller towns and villages to lose out.
Dualling may also drain low skilled employees south, harm the environment and discourage people from switching to rail in contrast with national policies which say we should be encouraging people to get out of their cars and use public transport.
Settlements bypassed may lose passing trade, rail is a real alternative if priced/timed competitively and there is a perception by some local companies that there is no need for dualling.
In the end the scheme is expected to reduce journey time between Inverness and Perth by 22 minutes by 2025. £3bn for less than half an hour? Is that value?
It is also worth pointing out this research only surveyed businesses not households. Interestingly businesses say the A9 is a minor consideration when it comes to where they locate.
95 per cent of business people surveyed travel by car and business travel accounts for a quarter of trips on the road. (In short, the £3bn is being spent on guys in suits who drive BMWs. Maybe we should ask them to chip in.)
The research also says the life science sector (Inverness Medical, etc) needs excellent access for international travel and the A9 and Inverness airport are critical for this. (In short we are spending £3bn to encourage driving and flying. How does this fit with our ambitious carbon reduction targets?)
But I keep coming back to the theme peppered throughout the research – the stress of driving. I know the A9 like the back of my white-knuckled hand and I can testify it’s an incredibly stressful road at times with idiots playing Wacky Races and sudden snarl ups caused by tourist coaches and caravans in the summer.
Surely the smarter answer is to crack down on the genitally-challenged speeders who do the dodgy manoeuvres and make it easier, more affordable and more pleasant for people to let the train take the strain.