In FNE just a year ago (FNE 87 p22) I wrote:
"Funding for everything has got more difficult in the present uncertain economic climate. Highland schemes which have slowly and painstakingly worked their way up the pecking order are particularly vulnerable to being put on the 'To Do' shelf waiting for the purse strings to ease. When the money situation does ease, history has shown that their funding bid has to start again, but in a new situation where they are competing in an expanded pool with other new and desirable schemes which have since appeared. We have seen this so often before."
Never could I have imagined what is now happening: two road schemes dominating transport discussions and potential funding. This overshadows work on, and funding for, lifeline ferry services for the islands and peninsulas served by Caledonian MacBrayne, Northlink, and those funded by councils such as Orkney Islands Council (which is struggling to meet capital requirements for new vessels); work to restore and provide efficient and reliable bus services to tackle the 38% decline in local routes between 2007 and 2023 shown in Traffic Commissioners' statistics, and much needed rail infrastructure investment for capacity and speed to encourage modal shift.
Scottish Government climate change targets are bold, but do they yet show up in current and future transport planning? Do all the Transport Scotland directorates strategise together to achieve modal shift? There is little sign yet of any noticeable migration of freight from road to rail or even of government action to ensure that this does happen.
For example, the whisky industry could be encouraged to switch raw materials and product to rail. This would have the benefit of removing many lorries from the A9 and the A95 in Moray, but the single track railways would need more and longer passing loops to accommodate this traffic. Does this feature in current plans? A fraction of the huge whisky taxation revenues which go direct to the UK Treasury could contribute to the cost. Politics already has recent precedent for sharing "levelling up" funding from both Edinburgh and Westminster in the City and Region Deals.
A long term issue in general terms is how consolidation of infrastructure investment has benefited the Central Belt rather than being strategically inclusive of the whole of Scotland, including the peripheral regions. The superb Aberdeen to Inverurie rail redoubling should have been followed by the investment required to provide the promised two hour average journey time for passengers between Aberdeen and Inverness and three hours between Edinburgh and Inverness. I was one of more than one hundred people in the Inverness Town House meeting after Cabinet on 5 August 2008 who heard the First Minister promise the latter by 2012. With the decoupling of the climate change brief from that of the new Transport Minister in 2010 the momentum was lost and road building prioritised. The journey has now increased to 3 hours 40 minutes.
The Scottish Government now has so many other urgent funding priorities which have built up, including the unfulfilled and environmentally lauded transport ones that it seems to be in a state of stasis.
The recent Strategic Transport Projects Review 2 took far, far too long over "process" rather than making "progress" while the public finance situation continued to deteriorate. It then majored heavily on giving priority to projects that benefit the most people, rather than paying attention to the word "strategic" in their remit. Only strategy will give the more even standards of living required over the whole country. As the Scottish Chambers of Commerce CEO said as long ago as April 2016: "Scotland's northern cities need to be better connected, and single track sections of the railways linking Inverness, Aberdeen and the Central Belt are unacceptable in the 21st century" [My italics].
Rail investment, such as the reopening of the Borders Railway and the branch to Leven is very welcome, but why is it taking so long to address the compelling needs of the Highlands?