John McLellan: New age of the train

Network Rail is proposing a �104m refurbishment of Queen Street Station in Glasgow. Picture: comp
Network Rail is proposing a �104m refurbishment of Queen Street Station in Glasgow. Picture: comp
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Weary commuters to the Dear Green Place on the Clyde will have been cheered by the images of the £104 million plan to bring Queen Street station bang up to date.

Operators Network Rail estimate passenger numbers will grow from the current 20m a year to 28m by 2030 and a significant number will be commuting to and from Edinburgh.

With far greater pressure on housing here at the same time as growing job opportunities, more people are likely to be attracted to cheaper living in the West while working in the East so those projections are not far-fetched.

An estimated 30 per cent more seats will definitely be needed at peak times, but improving journey times by 20 per cent might be a little more fanciful, especially if there is population growth in places like Falkirk and Croy and the trains have to stop.

In any case, if you’ve got a 50 minute commute, turning that into a 40 minute journey doesn’t actually make that much of a difference, other than to give you ten fewer minutes to finish the Sudoku.

Ask most commuters and they’d probably say that more services rather than faster services would be preferable, but with limited track space and pressure on platform capacity when the Border Rail link opens means that more trains to Queen Street is unlikely. Faster trains to Glasgow Central perhaps.

But improving the experience in the stations does make a real difference to the overall experience.

The computer image fly-through of the new Queen Street is undoubtedly impressive, especially the open views and better access to George Square which is something the station has needed for years. Fortunately, the hideous 60s hotel façade is not listed, so that can go if a deal is struck.

The new upper tier with catering opening out onto tables and chairs is also badly needed and is very reminiscent of the swish new-look Kings Cross. I’m told this was by accident rather than impersonation as the plans were developed separately.

One of the most practical changes is to bring access to the low level line out onto the main concourse; so no more mucking about with the barriers and dashing round the ticket office for a connection.

So too is opening up a direct link to the Buchanan Galleries, which means travellers will be able to get to the end of Sauchiehall Street without going outside and will be a significant addition to Glasgow’s already impressive shopping story.

What a massive PR opportunity it provides; it turns the Buchanan Galleries into a shopping mall with a covered entrance at every railway station on the Queen Street lines. Which is just about everywhere in Scotland.

The bad news is that it’s all going to take five years.

By comparison, poor old Waverley Station, while better than it was, still wrestles with the difficulties of its site. Even an improvement programme worth £130m can do little about a sunken location at the bottom of a valley and the constraints of listed building status .

Waverley is actually a combination of three old stations dating back to the 1840s, which explains its eccentric platform layout. Readers may not know the Scotsman building had its own platform beneath Market Street so papers could be loaded directly onto trains.

There have been many plans for Waverley, including one to turn the listed glass roof into a shopping mall, condemned by MP Alistair Darling as threatening to turn it into Edinburgh’s version of Birmingham New Street. Admittedly, that’s a particularly depressing place, recently voted Britain’s most unpopular station and which is also now being rebuilt.

So while the Glasgow end of the line gets an excellent new facility, I’m afraid we’re pretty much stuck with Waverley as it is, taxi rammies and all. And a tram which goes close but doesn’t actually stop there.

But at Haymarket it’s a different story. Well, apart from the taxi rammy that is. Trains, buses and trams all stop at the same place and I’m glad to hear more work is being done to make the airy new main area more practical.

Two important additions will be completed by April, the first being a Marks & Spencer immediately next to the new main entrance which means travellers will be able to buy sandwiches, papers and magazines without having to go down to Platform 4 to use the Pumpkin café.

And then the old building, opened in 1842 and one of Britain’s oldest stations, will be an entrance once again but this time through an open-plan airport-style shop. With approximately two million passengers a year, it’s too good an opportunity to miss.

But with about 40 passengers a year, Scotland’s second least-used station at Breich in West Lothian might have to wait for a Marks & Spencer. As for Golf Street station, I doubt very much if Scotland’s quietest train stop would still be open if it wasn’t for The Open at Carnoustie.

Since Beeching and the end of the age of steam, the future of British railways has never been certain but a combination of circumstances means that we could now be at the start of another great age of the train.

And as someone brought up with a railway line at the end of the garden and who took the train to school every day, I’m on board.

Financial pressures of prioritising potholes

An eight feet deep pothole on Forrest Road doesn’t sound like a big pothole but a small sink-hole, about which we’ve been hearing much recently.

It also illustrates just why so much preparatory work had to go into the tram bed; diverting the 27 and 23 bus down Princes Street is easy enough, not so a rail with a gaping hole underneath.

So the eight feet didn’t turn out to be quite so deep, but it still shut the road. And as all road users grudgingly acknowledge, potholes are now just an unfortunate fact of life, with stretched council budgets meaning only the biggest are repaired quickly. Even then there are mini-craters which go unfilled for months.

Such is the backlog that the best most of us can do is keep our eyes peeled.

It’s bad enough for drivers, with first the shock and then the inconvenience and cost of a wrecked suspension or broken wheel. But as most of the holes are kerb-side, for cyclists they are potentially lethal.

Hit them at speed and not only is your wheel going to come off second best but you will hit the tarmac at the same rate and be lucky to avoid going under whatever happens to be overtaking at the time.

Of coursed one person’s disaster is another’s opportunity and stick pothole in your search engine and up pops Run by Reading-based Warrantydirect, it tells you all you need to know about banging in a claim should you come unstuck.

And according to the site, potholes cause £2.8bn of damage to vehicles every year, with councils paying out around £30m in compensation. Which to my reckoning means there could be over £2.7bn worth of claims swilling around.

Maybe these figures are on the high side, because in the five years up to the end of 2011, only £1.7m was paid in compensation by Scottish councils, just around £340,000 a year. At a rough estimate, you would expect that to scale up to £3.4m paid out annually across the UK.

Here in Edinburgh, the road maintenance budget was a record £26m last year to meet the growing repair backlog, following a couple of exceptionally cold winters. But that will be scaled back to £15m a year for the next two years. The anger at a decision to re-allocate £1.5m from the repair budget to create new cycle routes was predictable enough.

I’m all for new cycle routes, but I wonder how many regular cyclists would argue the creation of cycle lanes is a greater priority than keeping the roads hole-free. I tend towards the latter.

As it happens, the cost of road maintenance was the subject of a significant study by Transport Scotland two years ago, the conclusion being that the overall cost of failing to carry out adequate repairs more than outweighed any savings.

You can easily argue with the methodology; the impact cost included things like visual amenity and community accessibility. Both are laudable, but from a budget point of view hardly on the same page as a council road repair bill. So while the overall impact of not maintaining a particular road might well be greater than the repair bill, that’s not how it looks if you are running the maintenance service.

So more joined up thinking? Well yes, but across a financial year joining up a roads budget with factors like global air quality, one of Transport Scotland’s criteria, is far from straightforward. If you’re a bean-counter, it’s much easier to balance it with a direct cost like compensation payouts; and if they are running at only £100,000 a year it’s easy to see why you might think lopping a few million off road repairs is reasonable in the short term.

Perish the thought that an orchestrated campaign of claims should be launched, but if pressure is to be put on councils to increase their road maintenance then action is much more likely if the consequences of not carrying out repairs are more directly measurable.

Immediate traffic disruption apart, as there was with the Forrest Road divot, that means more compensation payouts, which will only be brought about by more claims.

But when the cost of schools, social care and the bins ultimately has to come out of the same pot, I can understand why filling holes at £50 a pop becomes less of a priority.

And if I was asked to make a choice, I’d say I could live with fewer of them being filled if it means vital services are protected... if they are run prudently. Who’d be a council finance boss?