Martin Hannan: Now’s the time to drive change

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So we are to lose some of our Greenways and restore at least part of the city’s road system to motorists. You don’t have to be Jeremy Clarkson to say thank goodness for that. There is a simple, fundamental flaw in the reasoning behind Greenways and all bus lanes, for that matter. They were brought in to allow buses to move quicker than other traffic, so that people would be persuaded out of their cars and into buses. In turn, that would lead to a reduction in carbon emissions, thus saving the planet.

Unfortunately, in practice, bus lanes cause much more congestion than before they existed, as anyone who has sat in the outside lanes of this city will tell you.

The real damage to the environment is done by cars stuck in traffic jams where engines are at their least efficient and where the problem gases accumulate in much vaster quantities than over free-flowing traffic.

Our city fathers and mothers did not see this potential consequence back in 1997, when they hailed the Greenways as the best way of getting people into buses. They didn’t work. The public voted with their automobiles and went shopping in them to Fort Kinnaird and the formerly council-owned Gyle. Therein lies the real problem of our local transport – it is a two-tier system, with the apartheid being between those who can afford a car and those who can’t.

Buses remain largely the province of the latter – I suspect there are whole swathes of Edinburgh’s car-owning citizenry who haven’t been in a local bus for years. But car owners should not be discriminated against. I have said it before and will say it again that councillors and politicians generally need to rethink their whole attitude to the motor car and address the issues positively, not least because in a few short years – possibly as soon as 2030 – I believe the problem of car 
pollution will be a thing of the past.

That is because more and more drivers will switch to electric vehicles as these become more efficient and very much cheaper than petrol-driven cars. It’s a process that is already well under way, and linking hydrogen fuel cells and electric power may well change the face of motor transport, which will no longer be a slave to the internal combustion engine.

The real problem then will be route congestion as more and more cars hit the road. Perhaps that issue could be addressed long before it becomes a disaster.

Bring in the Branson

WHILE we are on the subject of transport, all the attention has focused on the West Coast rail line in recent weeks after Sir Richard Branson’s 
Virgin Trains lost the franchise to First Group.

The judicial review which Branson has launched is doomed to failure even if he wins the argument in court. That’s because the UK Government will just change the rules to make sure it gets its way. It always does.

Branson knows this because he is perfectly aware from his own experience that politics is a game of switcheroo – he was Margaret Thatcher’s favourite entrepreneur, then endorsed Tony Blair in 1997, before giving David Cameron’s deficit-cutting plans his backing in 2010.

I do feel a bit sorry for Branson, but much more sorry for his workers. Because there’s no doubt that Virgin did double the number of passengers on the line, and put in a lot of 
investment in both money and staff commitment. Virgin made mistakes, but it does not deserve to go out of the train business, not least because no-one, but no-one, does PR. and marketing like Virgin, and Branson’s genius in that regard could benefit the entire 
railways system.

Meanwhile, the only nationalised railway in Britain – albeit at arms length – continues on its merry way, doing as good a job, if not better, than any private franchise.

My first concern is always Edinburgh, and a crucial link for this city is our main line to London, on which East Coast has proven that it can and does provide a generally good long-distance service for this city.

The trouble is that East Coast’s life is limited. When the Westminster Government set up the East Coast Main Line company in 2009, it was made clear that nationalisation was only temporary. The latest estimate is that the franchise will be re-allocated to a private operator in December 2013, presumably after the same process that has just been used to allocate the West Coast franchise.

If East Coast has to disappear, and that will be a great pity, then an opportunity exists for a train operator who has learned from its mistakes elsewhere. Step forward Virgin.

With the East Coast line being the jewel in the crown, perhaps Branson should make a serious attempt to gain the franchise and at the same time revitalise train travel across Britain.

East Coast’s personnel and Virgin’s marketing expertise? I think that could be a winning combination for Edinburgh and the UK.

I also hope Virgin Atlantic wins the right to fly from Edinburgh Airport, because if it does, I have no doubt it will soon replicate its success at Glasgow and greatly increase the number of direct flights across the world. And it’s not virgin on the ridiculous to say so