News came on 17 March that from March 2022 the Scottish Government will operate ScotRail services directly. It will set up an arm's length company to run the trains. SG's long-term aim is for the remaining part of rail provision, i.e. NR to be devolved. One can imagine that at that point a nationalised ScotRail would resemble the old BR. As long as it really is arm's length it should work very well. In Scotland we have the huge advantage of the Railway Directorate of Transport Scotland having shown since its inception that it fully understands railway needs. The history of meddling and micro-managing from DfT that has been the burden of the English and Welsh railway system has not been seen here. We do not have ludicrous short-term decisions such as scrapping electrification in favour of building less efficient bi-mode trains, at a time when diesel traction was clearly about to be replaced.
It is to be hoped that the Scottish Government will take this opportunity to get a real grip on the 'railway infrastructure deficit' that is so obvious away from the Central Belt. It is already agreed that the best way to build back after Covid is to invest in infrastructure. The need to transfer freight to rail wherever possible makes double-tracking the Highland intercity routes an imperative. This will be expensive in the short term but will provide the public transport system that we need, to give proper facilities to the whole of the country for business and leisure travel.
Once we settle in to the post-pandemic world it will become clearer if, and by how much, commuting needs have changed. It seems likely that many companies will opt for a mix of working-from-home and office-based work for individuals. This, along with flexitime arrangements already in place, may take some of the peak hours pressure from public transport and allow better use of the infrastructure and rolling stock.
The government needs to understand that attractive public transport provision has to be made before people will begin to leave their cars at home. Home working may also make big changes in where people choose to live. If you are only required to be in a city two or three days a week you may well opt for somewhere quite far away, as long as there is fast and reliable transport available. It is quite possible that, given the right infrastructure and service pattern, the Far North Line and the towns and villages en route may be beneficiaries of this.
Transform Scotland held a series of pre-election Zoom meetings from the end of March, featuring transport spokesmen from the five major Scottish political parties, chaired by Alastair Dalton from The Scotsman.
The final event gave an opportunity to hear from Michael Matheson, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity.
The format was that each politician was given five minutes to present their thoughts and policies and then they were open to questions. Their answers were responded to by a panel of experts - including Paul Tetlaw for rail.
In response to questions about the dualling of the A9 and A96 it was quite surreal to hear a group of transport campaigners being informed that roads are essential to the economy of each area. It would be astonishing if that were news to anyone present.
The questions were not about building new roads, they were about the fact that the parallel railways are mostly single track and therefore sub-standard for intercity routes.
Mr Matheson stated that the government is not going to commit to dualling the Highland Main Line. He did however say, "The days of big road development projects are coming to an end."
This really needs to change soon - perhaps once the new government is in place it will feel able to do what is needed, like cancelling unnecessary road-widening schemes, without worrying about its election chances.
We have reluctantly decided to postpone our 2021 AGM & Conference to 1 October. The speakers and venue are unchanged at present, but please check nearer the time on our website.