Derek Bateman has been having a wee bit of a moan today about the general crappiness of Scottish public transport. He makes some very good points, public transport in the United Kingdom still suffers from the Thatcher effect. Maggie reputedly considered that if you were still taking the bus by the time you were 30, you were a failure in life. Maggie’s policies condemned generations to sit at the back of the UK bus. The UK has been following her failure for over 30 years.
Although the quote didn’t actually originate with Thatcher, it’s a fair assessment of the attitude of successive UK governments towards public transport – which whether Tory or Labour only consider investment in public transport to be desirable if it benefits business travellers. They’re not interested in the needs of a single parent who only wants to get to Asda. Our transport policy is decided by a political class that doesn’t need to use public transport.
On the day that Edinburgh’s tram service restarts after a 60 year hiatus, it’s time to have a wee look at Scottish public transport, and whether we’re really better together with the privatised routes to a closed terminus the country has been put on.
Public transport in the UK is the most expensive in Europe. When the Conservatives privatised the railways in the 1990s, we were promised greater efficiency and choice. Instead we got higher prices and reduced services on non-profitable routes. The average cost of a train journey is on average 50% higher than a comparable journey made elsewhere in Europe. According to the pressure group Passenger Focus, in 2009 the average ticket price for a train journey of three to ten miles was £1.85 in France, £2.52 in Spain, £5.08 in Germany, and £6.92 in the UK. If our public transport was 50% more efficient, 50% quicker than elsewhere in Europe, or had 50% better density of lines than elsewhere, that might be a 50% worth paying. But it isn’t. We pay more for less.
Thanks to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Senedd, rail transport in Scotland and Wales is cheaper per mile than equivalent journeys made in England. England has the most expensive rail transport in Europe. But with limited budgets which are determined by overall government expenditure in England, there is also a limit to how much the devolved administrations can ameliorate the damage done to a railway network which has been sent down the wrong track by successive UK governments.
An open return from London to Norwich, a distance of 117 miles, costs an eye-watering £108. The same ticket from Glasgow to Aberdeen, a distance of 135 miles, costs £67.10. However in Spain, an equivalent ticket for a journey between Madrid and the city of Valladolid - about 111 miles – costs approximately £30. The return trips work out at 46p per mile in England, 24.8p per mile in Scotland, and just 13.6p per mile in Spain – and the Spanish trip is a journey made on a brand spanking new high speed railway line.
It will take you up to three hours to travel from Glasgow to Aberdeen by train, but only 56 minutes to get from Madrid to Valladolid. The European high speed railway network stretches all the way from Málaga to London, but goes no further. The UK has only the vaguest of intentions of extending it to Scotland, sometime after 2030 maybe perhaps possibly, and none at all of extending it within Scotland. And this is in what they keep telling us is Europe’s strongest economy and the greatest Union of countries the universe has ever seen. It’s evidently a better together universe that hasn’t got high speed trains. The only high speed vehicles Scotland gets from Westminster are the ballistic nuclear delivery systems based on the Clyde.
It’s not actually that easy to dicover how much a train ticket is going to cost you in the UK. The traveller is faced with a bewildering range of websites offering special limited tickets which have to be booked a month in advance when the moon is in conjunction with Network Rail. Travelling to Marr in Aberdeenshire is more complicated than a manned voyage to Mars. Or you can call for advice, and get through to someone in a call centre in Chennai who doesn’t know where Aberdeen is.
We have a railway network which does not reach many of our important towns, and which does not connect to large tracts of the country. The paucity of available routes means that work on a line closes the system down as train services cannot be re-routed, meaning that buses bearing the destination “Choo choo I’m a train” are often more common than trains themselves. We’re being systematically ripped off by UK transport policies, which eat up public subsidies for private gain. That’s why they’re called chew-chews.
Our roads are little better, a patchwork of potholes and cart-tracks. Work is only just due to start on the missing link in the M8 motorway linking Scotland’s two largest cities – 50 years after the first motorway was opened the direct route between our capital city and our largest city remains incomplete. There are currently no plans to build a motorway connecting Aberdeen, Scotland’s third largest city and the centre of the vital hydrocarbons industry, with the rest of the country. Meanwhile the Highlands are even worse served, in any normal country the A9 to Inverness should be the M9, an efficient and well maintained motorway. Instead it’s a road which is single carriageway over much of its length and notorious for its accident blackspots. Kintyre and Cowal are regularly cut off from the rest of the country due to landslides blocking the A83.
Within our cities the public transport systems are not much better, the bus services do not integrate efficiently with commuter rail, and – Edinburgh trams aside – there are no light railway systems. Routes connect with city centres, but do not connect other parts of the city with each other. In Glasgow for example, there are plenty of east-west routes connecting the city centre, but you can’t get a bus from most of the East End to Cambuslang, which face one another across the river Clyde, or from Easterhouse to Tollcross. Often you have to travel into the city centre and back out again. Integrated public transport systems are effectively non-existent in Scotland, that’s a national disgrace in a country which aims to lead the world in combating climate change and reducing carbon emissions.
In an integrated transport system, you’d get a bus from the end of your street a short distance to the local metro station, and then using the same ticket you’d continue your journey to your final destination. In Scotland, following the UK’s rampant privatisation model, trains, trams and buses all compete with one another instead of acting in concert.
Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, has a extensive system of bus routes, a metro system with 11 lines, a number of commuter lines run by the national railway operator, two tram systems with three lines each (and a plan to connect the two systems through the city centre), and a number of heritage routes and funicular railways. The metro and bus routes are administered by a single body, and there are plans to integrate the tram systems and rail lines better with the rest of the system.
The greater Glasgow area is roughly comparable in terms of area and population, Glasgow has the second largest commuter rail network in the UK, a single line subway which has never been extended since it was first opened in 1896, and a system of bus routes which are only accidentally integrated with either the commuter rail or the subway. The buses, subway and trains are all administered separately. A bus ticket isn’t valid on the subway, and a ticket for neither is valid on the local train network. To get from where I live in Glasgow to Byres Road in the West End of the city involves a bus journey costing £1.95 and then you have to buy a subway ticket for £1.40. The total cost is £3.35. In Barcelona an equivalent journey costs £1.75, you buy your ticket on the bus then use the same ticket on the Metro.
The lack of a joined up transport policy is a symptom of decades without joined up thinking in UK government which is only interested in public transport in London. Scotland’s resources have helped to pay for the Docklands Light Railway, London Crossrail, and the new high speed line to Birmingham. Meanwhile we’re stuck in the slow lane. Commuters in the north of England fare even worse.
Even small projects are delayed for years. The proposal for a Glasgow Crossrail service has been on the table for years, and is constantly delayed due to a lack of funding. All such a service requires is the construction of a short chord less than half a kilometre in length to connect the line to Queen Street low level with railway routes to the south west of Scotland. The project would open up the railway system in the West of Scotland allowing for direct and easy connections between Ayr and Edinburgh, and would make the Glasgow Airport link worthwhile. Funding the project must come solely from the Scottish budget. Meanwhile London Crossrail involves digging a tunnel 10 miles long underneath a densely populated city, the project counts as a UK national project and is paid for by everyone in the UK. That’s the project which is underway, Glasgow Crossrail remains a distant dream.
Although transport policy is devolved to Holyrood, the overall budget is still set by Westminster. Cuts to transport funding in England have knock on effects in the Scottish budget. Independence offers the chance of a renaissance of Scottish public transport. Scotland doesn’t have the powers to renationalise the railways or end the insanity of private bus companies creaming off the profitable routes. The country which once built trains for countries all over the world is now a rusty branch line. We deserve better, and Scotland is rich enough to afford much better.
A modern and comprehensive transport system is vital to boosting the Scottish economy. The only reason we have such poor and expensive services is because of Westminster. Our transport policies have been decided by generations of politicians who think getting a bus after the age of 30 means you’re a failure in life. It’s time to put an end to that. Let’s wave goodbye to the traffic jam of Westminster, the independence train can take us on a journey to a properly integrated approach to Scottish public transport.