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Former minister backs calls for Network Rail devolution in Scotland

An independent Scottish think tank has called for a bold ‘strategy for the future’ to fix Scotland’s unsatisfactory railways in a new report, including by backing calls to devolve Network Rail in the country.

The report, ‘Track to the Future’, written by Reform Scotland’s research director Alison Payne and the former Labour transport minister Tom Harris, examined the problems currently faced by Scotland’s railways and suggested solutions for modernising them.

The report highlighted a myriad of present issues, such as an unnecessarily complex rail network and unfavourable journey times, and called instead for the devolution of Network Rail and the creation of a new Scottish Rail Infrastructure Commission.

These are not the first calls issued to devolve Network Rail, with Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf urging Sir Peter Hendy and Mark Carne to “increase the scale and pace of their decentralisation agenda”. He argued that while the Scottish government was doing “what we can to address issues at hand, our powers are limited”.

Harris commented on the report: “The current debate over whether or not to nationalise ScotRail misses the point.  54% of delays are the fault of Network Rail. Nationalising ScotRail won’t make the trains run on time and it is self-defeating for any politician to imply otherwise.

“Instead, we need fundamental change to the governance of Network Rail. The Scottish government is responsible for the strategic direction and funding of the Scottish rail network, but this responsibility cannot be properly exercised while Network Rail remains answerable to the UK government.

“Reform Scotland believes that Network Rail in Scotland should be fully accountable to the Scottish government, and that means it must be devolved.”

The think tank found that journey times in Scotland compare unfavourably with those of a similar distance in England, with the journey from Edinburgh to Aberdeen taking well over two hours despite the equidistant London to Birmingham taking under 90 minutes.

While the report welcomed the Scottish government’s current investment into the rail network, it criticised the attempt to use lines while still upgrading them, which Abellio recently highlighted as a trying factor in a letter sent to Scottish Labour’s transport spokesman Neil Bibby.

The report also criticised the “short-sighted” nature of previous investments such as the Borders Railway – whose non-electrified single track limits the potential for future upgrades such as linking the service to Carlisle – and questioned current proposals to improve journey speeds to London rather than to the Highlands.

Harris said that Scotland should not tolerate the poor connectivity between its cities and demanded “strategic action” from the government to improve Scotland’s “deficient” rail infrastructure.  

“Ongoing improvements are vital and the Scottish government should be congratulated for investing in this area, but we need to think about the bigger picture and create a bold strategy for the future,” he added.

“Reform Scotland is today calling on the Scottish government to create a Scottish Rail Infrastructure Commission to examine what ambitious transformational projects and new railway lines we need to boost the Scottish economy and transform our connectivity as a nation.”

The report also called for the Scottish government to learn from the failure of the Borders Railway by ‘future-proofing’ all new rail investment and ensuring that it is double-tracked and electrified.

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Jane Ann Liston   30/11/2016 at 11:29

One reason Edinburgh-Aberdeen takes longer than London-Birmingham (roughly same distance) is the speed restriction caused by the kink in the Burntisland-Kinghorn tunnel. Ideally that should be remedied, and should have been long ago, as it would create many more train paths but it would be a major piece of engineering, not to mention very expensive. Would a devolved NR be willing to grasp that nettle?

SWB   01/12/2016 at 22:05

As much as I love Scotland, comparing Edinburgh-Aberdeen to London-Birmingham is very much an apples and oranges situation. First, the number of passengers between London and Birmingham is significantly greater than the number of Edinburgh-Aberdeen travelers. Second, Birmingham is not the end of the journey for many passengers, whereas Aberdeen is a final destination (few people continue on toward Inverness). Third, the Scottish route is very different in nature from its English cousin. Traveling from Edinburgh to Aberdeen requires crossing 2 long bridges, each of which has a low speed limit. Those bridges are connected by a very curvy route which hugs the coastline for a good distance, factors which also keep speeds low. Only after a train has passed through Dundee can it maintain a decent average speeds. Public money is not unlimited, although politicians and over-exuberant planners seem to forget that. Scotland should certainly get its fair share of government expenditures, but common sense should not be forgotten.

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