New cross-Border rail row will do nothing to cool support for independence – Alastair Dalton
By the time he got back to his desk after being reappointed as Transport Secretary on Wednesday, Michael Matheson will no doubt have sighed – at the very least – to hear of the latest pronouncement from the UK government that he would have found sitting at the top of his in-tray.
Just two weeks after another emphatic SNP election victory, Whitehall has chosen to set the course for the future of the railways with apparently no consultation about its impact on Scotland, which largely has control over the network north of the Border.
The shake-up announced by UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps will centre on the creation of a new body, Great British Railways, which suggests the UK government is trying to homogenise the system in all parts of the mainland, despite the significant devolution of powers to the Scottish government.
It bodes ill for the relationship between the new SNP administration and the Conservatives at Westminster over transport, already strained by the latter’s plans to improve links across the UK through its Union Connectivity Review.
While the UK government could be considering further devolution of power to Scotland in an attempt to cool support for an independence referendum, it seems to be on an opposite path of trying to shore up the Union by edicts from the centre.
An opportunity here would have been to give Holyrood the remaining powers over rail it lacks, such as strategic direction, but that appears to have been rebuffed.
The Scottish government wants a public sector bid for the next ScotRail contract, which is likely to gain public support, yet the UK government plans to continue to offer train-operating contracts to the private sector.
Unless carefully handled, rail could become yet another cross-Border row over control being imposed from down south, which nationalists would be quick to exploit.
It has echoes of the Union Connectivity Review, which gave the impression that not only would major projects be imposed on Scotland, like a bridge or tunnel to Northern Ireland, but there would be interference in spending decisions within Scotland, such as upgrading the A75 link between near the English Border and the Cairnryan ferry port.
The Scottish government has argued that it is putting such schemes under much more rigorous scrutiny than that of the UK government’s review before deciding on the best choice among competing spending priorities – while the latter is jumping the gun with little analysis, and effectively encroaching on devolved decision making.
But such cross-Border skirmishes over transport are not just a feature of the Boris Johnson government.
There have been long-running tensions over high-speed rail, whose original concept to make it properly viable by linking Edinburgh, Glasgow and London has been watered down, with only vague pledges made to extend HS2 from northern England across the Border, despite insistent SNP lobbying.
The current approach of the UK government seems likely to further rile its opposite number in Edinburgh, which ultimately wants to create its own transport system anyway – and not be told how to do it.