Brian Monteith: High speed hype is railroading us

High speed rail is gathering steam at Holyrood. Picture: Robert Perry
High speed rail is gathering steam at Holyrood. Picture: Robert Perry
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IF YOU are in a hole and want to get out it is best to stop digging. That’s one of the sayings that politicians would do well to remember, indeed it could have been written just for them.

In Edinburgh, think of trams, in the Scottish Borders think of restoring the Waverley Line. If you are the Minister for public infrastructure then it has to be something far grander – why not a new railway between Glasgow and Edinburgh?

Initially it sounds great, it will catch headlines, all positive stuff that gives a warm feeling for the politician. Soon consultants will queue up offering to provide research papers, computer modelling and international trips so other politicians can get behind it and advocate it too.

From one simple press statement suddenly there is a whole lobby of vested interests investing their futures in the idea.

If you think I’m being cynical then all I can say in my defence is that’s exactly what happened with the trams.

Local politicians constantly told us how it would put Edinburgh on the map, make it a continental city of standing. How could provincial Sheffield or Croydon have trams when cosmopolitan Edinburgh had only buses?

Councillors and newspaper editors were taken to Dublin or Lyon to impress upon them the importance of the idea, consultants could make the figures work and the beneficiaries – signalling or tram car manufacturers – were only too keen to help.

The fact that we had the best bus service in the UK and other transport services available to keep it on its toes counted for nought. Soon, if you were to get on in Edinburgh’s council you had to be backing the trams. The rest is very expensive history.

So what about the new “High Speed” railway between Glasgow and Edinburgh?

SNP Minister Nicola Sturgeon has not given out any costs yet, probably because she has no idea, so there will need to be studies to find out. These will be modelled on moving so many passengers either way in half an hour and the argument will go that the quicker journey time must mean more people in Edinburgh will travel to work or shop in Glasgow – and more people in Glasgow will travel to work or shop in Edinburgh. Estimates will be made about how much spending these people will bring to either city and this will be sold as economic growth. Doubles all round!

Little attention will be paid to the spending that these same people once made in Glasgow or Edinburgh before they got on a train. Nobody wants a negative column in the study.

To be attractive against the cheaper but slower bus (or other trains that will have to still operate) the High Speed train’s fares will have to be subsidised. This will be ignored.

PR consultants and transport engineers will be engaged to produce a video to be put on YouTube; mock-ups of what the carriages might be like will be put in the two great cities to convince people that travelling in style and comfort will be assured; and computer-aided images of trains running through West Lothian, South Lanarkshire and North Lanarkshire (but not Falkirk) will be circulated to politicians to put on their websites and in their election addresses once they sign up to the project. Triples all round!

Local politicians be talking about how it will bring Edinburgh and Glasgow together, the joint economic power will be harnessed to make Scotland great and there will of course be jobs, jobs and more jobs as a result.

Politicians like Nicola Sturgeon and Kenny MacAskill will make speeches stating that the new High Speed train is vital for Scotland and to be against the scheme is to be against Scotland.

Anyone asking questions, criticising the concept or even raising an eyebrow in committee will be 
marginalised. It will be easier for a politician to be a smoker inside Holyrood than be against the scheme.

No one will have the guts to point out that for a high speed train to work it will need new track on a new route with new tunnels and bridges and that although costing a few billion it will be cheaper to build new stations in the centre of Edinburgh and Glasgow than alter the existing track and tunnelling that takes trains into the existing stations. Nor will it be pointed out that there will be no stops at Linlithgow, Polmont, Falkirk or anywhere else because to be faster it needs to be on a separate track without any stops.

The old trains will still have to run – but with fewer passengers with higher fares and needing a subsidy.

I haven’t even got going yet and I’ve run out of words. Hopefully a few local politicians might read this and get my point. The idea is a nightmare on stilts, and we haven’t even begun to hear about the costs from the bag of Nicola’s illicit fag packet. If anything would bring me back into politics standing against this nonsense might just do it.