Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Will Rail Upgrade Move Up Agenda Now Business Back It?

The latest edition of Greenprint is hot off the press (use oven mitts to open this PDF) and already corporate interests are jumping on my bandwagon.

To be fair, improvements to the railways are something chambers of commerce around the country have been banging on about for many years but uprading roads has traditionally been the priority. Today the chambers have challenged the SNP Government to deliver on their rail promises.

(For the record here's what the Nats promised in their 2011 manifesto:

“Our proposals will also mean faster and more-frequent connections between Inverness and Aberdeen, and between these cities and the central belt.”

“Our plans will also include progress on a new integrated ticketing system for Scotland."

“We will also take forward the important Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement programme."

“We will begin to develop the infrastructure to support electric cars, beginning in our urban areas and in the central belt, and will continue to increase the proportion of transport spending that goes on low-carbon, active and sustainable travel.”)

Here's what I wrote for Greenprint, urging other Greens not to lose sleep over the folly of a dual A9 which is certain to happen. Those of us who care about social inclusion, the environment and local businesses should put our energies into getting a dual railway line to the north...

In “The West Wing” there’s a great episode in which Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda are running for President and are told by their advisors at a rally for corn growers they must pledge support for subsidies for ethanol, regardless of their true feelings. Smits has his doubts but chooses to take the pledge. Alda chooses to be honest and tells the farmers that ethanol is a bad bet. It gives him a rosy glow but doesn’t win him the White House.

In Scotland we have our own version of the Ethanol Pledge – it’s called Dual The A9. Whatever your true feelings you’d have to be on a political kamikaze mission to publicly say the notorious main road between Inverness and Perth didn’t need upgraded.

And I have a real problem with that. As a Green the last thing that comes naturally to me is support for laying down swathes of tarmac through the Cairngorms National Park. But given the apparent universal popularity of the pledge how do I stick to my principles without alienating voters?

Firstly, let’s address this “notorious” reputation.

If you Google “dual A9” the first thing that comes up is – a website set up by Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser. He claims the A9 has the “highest fatality rate” of any road in Scotland. He’s wrong.

The A9 has the highest number of fatalities of any road in Scotland, which given its great length isn’t hugely surprising. The highest rate – that is the number of fatalities per mile of road – actually belongs to the A730, a four mile route in Glasgow between the Gorbals and Rutherglen. It is closely followed by the much longer A92, which despite stretching right across Murdo’s Fife constituency, doesn’t seem to get him terribly exercised. The highest rate of injury is found on the A8 and M8.

Furthermore, the A9 is assessed as a low to medium risk (the second safest category out of five) by the European Road Assessment Programme.

The SNP Government clearly sees dualling the A9 as a vote-winner. Its £3bn of improvements will begin in 2015, cunningly around the time of the next Westminster election and just before the next Holyrood election. The first phase of work earmarked is at Aviemore, right on Danny Alexander’s doorstep.

The infrastructure minister Alex Neil says dualling will “reduce driver frustration”.

I think this is where Greens come in.

A recent report showed fewer deaths and serious injuries have occurred on roads where safety cameras have been installed. If dualling must happen it must surely be accompanied by cameras.

Then we should consider the claims that dualling will create jobs and support the economy. In fact, a consultants’ study warns of centralisation of local trade in Inverness and Perth, causing the small towns and villages along the A9 to lose out.

All the while a review is gathering dust on the shelves of Transport Scotland. It says running faster and more frequent trains between Inverness and the Central Belt would significantly benefit the economy, accessibility and social inclusion. And crucially, the improvements could be delivered for peanuts compared the dualling the A9.

The review says with more double track and passing loops – which would be easy to construct – we could reduce journey times by 20 minutes, making the rail service more competitive with car travel and more attractive for freight. This in turn could reduce congestion on the A9, addressing that holy grail of “driver frustration”. The review highlights the potential of removing over 13,000 HGV trips each year from the A9, with another positive knock-on effect of improving air quality in towns and villages along the route.

It would also benefit Highland business by enabling an effective working day in the Central Belt, boost tourism and make life easier for those who don’t have a car.

We don’t have to “take the pledge” on the A9 but should recognise we’re going against the flow of traffic, highlighting the need for proper safety features and support for the small communities who stand to lose trade, and campaigning hard for a much better rail service. The Tories have “” – why don’t we have “”?

1 comment:

  1. Completely with you.
    No point in a political party opposing the A9 dualling as the momentum is too strong and the myths too widely believed. Any opposition needs to come from pressure groups.
    For any political party not buying into the flock-think that has arisen, the astute thing is to focus on what should be being done - average speed limits and improved rail-track. The first of which could be done very quickly.

    To employ the emotive techniques of the duallers "Why should we wait for your pet project (A9 dualling) to save lives when we can save lives now quickly with average speed cameras".