Thursday, 28 August 2014

Scottish Independence - The death of a National rail network?

One of my biggest fears for the UK, in the event of a Yes vote for Scottish Independence is the calamatous effect it is likely to have on the UK rail network. There are two huge issues that no one really seems to have considered or discussed.

1. Network Rail. This is a 'not for profit' company which is wholly owned by the government. Presumably it will have to be split into two organisations in the event of Independence. This will require a whole new layer of bureaucracy, a whole raft of new IT systems and a massive team of lawyers to sort out issues arising from this divorce. Presumably the new "Network Rail Scotland" will be given its orders from the new Parliament and these will be a whole set of different orders from those issued to "Network Rail UK" in Westminster. What will this mean in practical terms? For one thing it will mean that HS2 will never reach Scotland. It is likely to ultimately also mean a massive shift away from freight on the railways to more and more lorries thundering up and down overused and underinvested motorways. Political decisions about transport spending will not be made for the benefit of the UK economy. Instead, they are likely to be made with short term pork barrelling in mind, which invariably means projects which benefit small areas rather than a more strategic long term plan to ensure freight is move efficiently and in an Eco freindly manner around the UK. Upgrading railway infrastructure is horrendously expensive and why on earth would Westminster invest a penny to improve links with a foreign country, with little benefit to the UK economy. The Scots are likely to make their infrastructure spending decisions around projects which will deliver votes, ie small scale improvements close to large centres of population. This means that longer term schemes, which deliver few votes but have massive eco benefit such as upgrading long distance freight handling capacity will be put on the back burner.

2. Awards of franchises. At present these are awarded on a UK national level. What happens with the franchises that straddle borders such as the East and West Coast main line contracts? At present Virgin runs the West Coast and the Government runs the East Coast, following the last debacle. It is inconceivable that the newly elected Scottish government will be happy to simply let the UK govt dish out such important contracts. So the franchise bidders will have to dealw ith two governments with presumably very different agendas. Once the divorce is completed, there is no reason why the UK government would have any interest in ensuring decent services north of the Border. One presumes that for the Scots, they will be keen to preserve services and ensure that any franchise award doesn't damage their economy, but how on earth can this be practically achieved? Of course where there are lucrative contracts on well used services this will not be too much of a problem, but over the course of time the network is likely to evolve into a more Uk centric system. With ever increasing demands on capacity, it seems likely that services to Scotland will be the first to go when making decisions as to timetabling constraints on overcrowded lines. It seems highly unlikely that the UK government will want to give any subsidies to prop up less well used regional services and will divert this money towards improvements which benefit the UK rather than the Scottish taxpayer.

Furthermore, one has to wonder what will be the view of the UK government on cross border road links. If the cross border rail network is run down to provide better inter UK services, then what will happen to the roads as traffic builds up? Will the ministry of transport sanction huge spending and development on expensive new roads and upgrades to existing roads? Again this seems unlikely if the chief beneficiaries are the Scottish taxpayer.

So who will benefit? It seems likely to me that the biggest winners will be the low cost airlines. They will take up the slack. Both Scottish and English airports will benefit from this, but again there are only so many air traffic control slots and can they cope with a massive expansion of cross border short haul flights. What seems fairly clear is that flying, which is the most polluting and non eco friendly mode of transport will be the growth area for transport in this brave new world.

So to sum up, what will the likely effect on the transport network.

1) Move away from rail freight between UK & Scotland
2) Running down of long distance passenger services between UK and Scotland
3) More concentration on urban rail services
4) Running down of UK/Scotland Motorways
5) Increase in cross border flights & air traffic congestion

Is this a problem? Well for someone like me who lives in London and rarely visits Scotland, but travels into London every day, a huge refocussing of transport spending away from Scotland and into more local services could actually be a good thing. I don't liv near enough to any airports for the extra noise to overly disturb me and in actual fact more spending on transport in London would probably improve air quality locally. I wouldn't be so sure it was a good idea if I was Scottish though. I can't logically see how any of these developments would persuade international businesses that Scotland is a good place to invest.

No comments: