John Finnie MSP, the Green Party regional member for Highlands & Islands and one of FoFNL's Vice Presidents writes regularly for the Inside Holyrood column in SPP Media Group newspapers.
John often writes about railway matters and is an excellent advocate for rail, endeavouring to change the Scottish Government's transport policy which is currently heavily weighted towards major road projects, inevitably at the expense of vital rail improvements. This is John's column from the Inverness Courier on 2 August.
Unfortunately the headline writer managed to reverse the crucial words: Roads not rail should be the priority! After some requests from FoFNL and elsewhere to rectify this, SPP published a correction the following week.
Inverness Courier 02-08-19
One of the biggest changes we will have to make as a society if we are to address the climate emergency quickly and effectively, is transportation of people and goods. The primacy of cars and lorries must come to an end if we are to cut emissions to the extent necessary.
That's why it's so frustrating the Scottish Government has poured billions of pounds into dualling the A9 and A96, while the Highland Mainline remains only single track. The line could have been dualled in a much shorter time and for considerably less cost than the enormously expensive road projects. The flaws in a single-track system are clear. One breakdown grinds the system to a halt and the single line places a low cap on the route's capacity. If the Highlands is to have an interconnected transport system, then the status quo for railway is not good enough.
Changing the way we move ourselves and goods around the country doesn't have to mean sacrifice though. Too often the changes we need to make to address climate change are presented as giving something up where as the truth is there are considerable opportunities.
In terms of emissions, rail freight is a significant improvement on road haulage and the electrification of rail lines would only improve this further. There's the additional benefit of fewer lorries on the roads, further improving air quality and traffic flow. If run in the correct way rail freight can also end up cheaper. As we look to the future and alternative modes of transport, viable rail infrastructure will be vital for communities and industries across the Highlands.
While the Highland Main Line already supports significant flows of freight, the room for growth is almost non-existent. This is enormous wasted potential. The whisky industry for example would be perfectly poised to take advantage of expanded rail freight capacity.
With almost 50 distilleries in the Highland region, raw materials such as barley or imported casks could be swiftly and effortlessly brought north, while the finished product is sent south. Increased capacity is also essential if the Highlands is to cope with the demands of growing tourist numbers.
All of this underlines the absurdity of spending an inordinate amount of money on the A9 and A96 while almost completely neglecting the Highland Main Line. Rail was the main mode of transport into the Highlands in the past and with proper investment it can be again. We must quickly switch our focus to providing a modern rail network that gives passengers and business a viable and attractive alternative to dirtier modes of transport.
Sadly the Programme for Government set out by the First Minister on 3 September contained no evidence that the government intends to invest massively in rail now. (I.B.)