Is it too much to hope that we may at last be looking at a new era in the Scottish Government's view on rail? Until now, whilst some excellent improvements have been made elsewhere in Scotland, there has been only some acknowledgement that there is a serious shortfall in the rail provision in the Highlands - especially the intercity routes.
In Parliament on 31 August the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, gave a statement about the new power sharing agreement between the SNP and the Scottish Green Party. This is not a coalition and therefore disagreements on issues between the parties can be talked about. It is clear that the Green Party does not support either of the two massive road improvement projects, the dualling of the A9 and the A96, at a probable cost of around £10,000m. It looks as though they may be partly successful in bringing about a reduction in the scope of the A96 project but not the A9 dualling which the SNP is still insisting must be done. After the First Minister's statement there was the opportunity for questions from MSPs. The exchange which has brought us a feeling of cautious optimism is reported in full in Parliamentary Questions.
The FM's last paragraph refers to the "inescapable fact that, if we are to meet the targets around reducing reliance on car use for all of the country and some parts of the country in particular, it will depend on developing the alternatives". This is the acknowledgement we seek that in areas of lower population more per head has to be spent on infrastructure. "Developing the alternatives" has to mean turning the lines that link Perth and Aberdeen to Inverness into real intercity railways, as provided elsewhere in Scotland. This means double track as well as electrification. And it needs to be done as a matter of urgency. The First Minister's comments may be just what's needed to electrify those MSPs who regard rail as peripheral.
Rail matters at Holyrood come under the scrutiny of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee. Worryingly for the Highlands the closest representatives on the seven-strong committee are a North East Regional list member and an Aberdeen MSP. This means that there is no representative from the Highlands and Islands to supply knowledge of single track railways in the Highlands nor ferries on the West Coast of Scotland.
Back to Rail?
As early as June last year concern was being expressed in the railway media that the message "please don't use the trains, walk, cycle or even use your car" was coming from the top of the rail industry as it was realised that essential, socially distanced, key workers needed the space to get to work. Unfortunately there has not been a matching campaign since the end of most restrictions to inform people that it is now a very low risk to travel on a train and to get back to remembering that we all have our part to play in combating climate change by minimising our use of all kinds of fuel.
In Scotland the situation is certainly not helped by the almost total absence of trains every Sunday for months as a result of industrial action.
Whether you are pro- or anti- Scottish Independence the fact that the Westminster Government chose not to involve Transport Scotland, or Holyrood politicians, in two major processes affecting rail provision in the UK, the Union Connectivity Review, and the Williams-Shapps Plan, is definitely food for thought.