Martin Hannan: Trains can still be the rail deal

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If I could be so bold as to recommend a method of maintaining friendly international relations in Edinburgh this week, might I suggest that all our welcome visitors do not mention the “T” word.

Not a few comedians on the Fringe have been having a laugh at Edinburgh’s expense simply by mentioning the trams. But the joke has long ago worn thin with local citizens, not least because on Thursday our council’s Liberal Democrat poltroons are expected to force through the borrowing of hundreds of millions of private sector pounds to complete a small portion of the biggest white elephant Scotland has ever seen, and we, the people of Edinburgh, will be paying for it for a generation or two.

The problem has always been that the council and the Scottish Government chose the wrong solution to solve the Capital’s perceived transport problems. You’ll forgive this SNP member if I remind you that my party opposed the trams in Holyrood and the council chamber, and the result of last week’s council by-election seems to indicate that people are absolving the SNP of blame – let’s hope they remember to do so next May.

It was on a brief trip to a still-singed London last week that I saw and used the quite wonderful overground rail system which whisked me round the city from Clapham Junction to Stratford in record time.

On the way back from London on the marvellous East Coast express, it occurred to me that trains, not trams, should have been the solution to the transport difficulties of Edinburgh.

I should point out that I am one of those people who used to love flying down to London as I deluded myself that an hour’s time saved, city centre to city centre, was worth the extra hassle that flying brings. Now I always go by train – plenty of cheap deals in advance, city centre to city centre in less than four hours, 30 minutes on some services, no queues for security or having to be there an hour early, or rotten expensive car parking or airport “drop-off” charges, so why would anyone not use East Coast for travel to London and points in between?

I now always use trains between Edinburgh and the west coast, because I am convinced the M8 will be the death of me. Yes, rail journeys can be expensive if not booked early, but with the price of petrol soaring, more and more I’ll let the train take the strain off my wallet.

So you see I am a train convert, and having seen the London overground network, I wondered why such schemes had not happened in Edinburgh. But of course, there were once plans to use trains to tackle our city’s transport problems, which largely result from the need for masses of people to move to and from the suburbs and outlying areas into the city centre.

We have a perfectly good bus service, you might say, and I would agree with you. But buses should only be part of the public transport mix, not the sole method of commuting.

There will no doubt be a few readers who have spotted where this column is heading. They will be the people who campaigned for the re-opening of the South Suburban (South Sub) line and for the introduction of the Airport Rail Link (EARL), and also the Waverley Line to the Borders.

For the amount which will finally be spent on the trams, we could have had EARL and the South Sub put together, the former being costed at around £600 million and the latter in the tens rather than hundreds of millions. And EARL would have integrated the airport into the national rail network, with the benefits that might have brought.

I think we have to accept that EARL is dead, given that the tram line will run from the airport to somewhere in the city, but reopening the South Sub to passenger traffic has to be an idea worth considering, and organisations such as the Capital Rail Action Group are still pressing for it.

Its reopening was to be part of the whole Crossrail project which I thought was a winner a few years back, but which died in the face of political disdain.

Anyone who wants to see what Crossrail could have achieved should go on the London Overground, and then weep for the folly of our political masters who did not possess the imagination to grasp the possibilities.

The Government is committed to the Waverley Line to the Borders, and work is under way. The problem with the Waverley Line, however, is that it is taking too long, and there is considerable local resentment along the route to the blight which the project is causing.

No serious compensation plan for affected businesses and residents has yet been adopted, and that is really causing serious grief to people who have to plan for the years ahead. No- one seems to know what is really happening with the biggest train project in the east of Scotland, so can we have some clarity, please?

That being said, this nation and this region needs to move people out of cars and on to public transport, and trains must be part of the mix. I know people will distrust anything on rails after the trams, but we should look again at Crossrail and the South Sub. Trains, not trams, would be better in the future.