Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

Changing Directions for Scottish Transport – Tom Hart

After the May election, a more fundamental review of transport in Scotland is now being promised together with links to and from Scotland by air, sea, rail and road.  This will look forward to the early 2040s though with provision for five-yearly revision and more detailed proposals to 2030.   Network Rail (in the draft Scotland Route Study published in December 2015) and road, business and environmental groups are are advancing their own proposals for short and longer-term change.

This blog post concentrates on changes within Scotland since external links will be affected by the joint Scottish and UK Government review of Anglo-Scottish High Speed Rail (and impacts on rail freight) expected to be  published in late February and by final decisions on airport expansion in the London area.

What kind of Changes in Direction?
Many politicians and members of the public continue to give the impression that rises in transport infrastructure investment can offer substantial benefits for the economy and society in both the short and longer-term – creating construction jobs, improved labour market access and private investor confidence in wider spin-offs.  On the other hand, there are new arguments that the net benefits of large transport projects can be exaggerated with better, and more democratic, results coming from a restructure, rather than a rise, in infrastructure spending  and greater reliance on reforms in regulatory, fiscal and pricing policies – including greater devolution of transport and access decisions in England and in Scotland.

There is also the issue of how far, and in what ways, changes in technology may affect the future socio-economic role of transport.  Will driverless cars and other developments in broadband electronics replace the desire to own cars with an explosion of ‘pod’ rental and a near collapse of both conventional taxis and scheduled buses?   Five-yearly reviews can take account of actual developments but there could be major spatial and environmental issues if technology is found to be increasing, rather than reducing, the total space required for ’car’ and ‘pod’ movement, especially within cities.

Actual Changes in Direction  2000-2015
An under-appreciated feature of the recent past has been the ending of a century of massive decline in rail modal share of movement and the appearance of near stability (absolute decline in several cities) of car movement per head of population.  Road freight,  notably light van movement, has remained more buoyant yet HGV operators having rising problems of labour shortage and facing up to a much reduced reliance on diesel fuel by the 2040s.  The Tables below show recent changes in Scotland:


Table 1     Passenger Movement by Rail, Car and Bus in Scotland (millions)

 Rail Passenger Kms.Car Vehicle KmsPassenger kmsBus Local Trips
20011,969 31,904 47,854466
2013 2,82833,81143,954425
20153,000 (est)34,000 (est)44,200425 (est)

Source  Scottish Transport Statistics (published annually)

NOTES Finalised data for 2015 has still to be published but interim data shows continuing rail growth, including high growth in and around Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen and on the reopened Borders rail route.  Car passenger kms are not given in STS but the British National Travel Survey (now excluding Scotland) shows a fall in average car occupancy.  For Scotland, the table assumes an average of 1.5 persons in 2001, falling to 1.4 in 2006 and 1.3 in 2013 and 2015.  Bus passenger kilometre data is not published but, taking an average bus trip of 10km, rail passenger kms are up from 42% of bus passenger km in 2001 to 70% in 2015.  Data excludes trips on the Glasgow Subway and on Edinburgh tram – amounting to 13m and 5m in 2015.  Heritage and Cairngorm Mountain rail trips are also excluded.

Table 2   Average Daily Road Traffic Flows (including HGVs and vans) at selected key points

A74(M) Lockerbie30,99832,156 31,410
M8 Harthill 51,55750,170*
A/M80 Cumbernauld 64,59969,314
M90 Kelty28,53626,51131,117
A720 Dreghorn67,06278,38676,704
A90 Stonehaven22,96924,92125,796*
A9 Tomatin7,6008,7178,749

Source  Scottish Transport Statistics   * 2012  as special factors affected 2013 data.

Table 2 indicates a slowing of road traffic growth which is only partly attributable to the recession since rail growth has been much higher over the same period.  The very low growth on the new 3-lane motorway Rural A74(M) completed in the mid 1990s casts doubt on the former government view that creation of this high capacity motorway was vital for Scottish economic growth.  Even without this long-distance motorway, it is unlikely that economic growth would have been lower – it may even have been higher given alternative options for use of the capital involved.

Table 1 shows that the volume of rail passenger travel remains far below the volume of car use but the rise in rail use, and the stability in car vehicle kilometres (plus evidence of lower car occupancy – especially at peak periods) has seen the rail share of total passenger kilometres in Scotland up from 3.7% in 2001 to around 6% by 2015. This included a greater rise in the already higher rail share of peak movement into city centres.  By 2030, the Scottish rail share could be 10% or more with growth mainly in Inter-city and city-region travel plus a greater share of tourism and leisure travel.   Despite the disappearance of coal hauls, rail is also likely to see a rise in other types of bulk freight and container traffic on longer-distance corridors.

The Direction of Change 2015-45
More attention needs to be given to the formulation, and implementation, of actual changes in the transport framework giving greater weight to personal and business preferences for a stronger but more inclusive and sustainable economy and society – in which transport is only one of several sectors meriting new approaches.  Two related themes need development – the first dealing with regulatory, fiscal and pricing reform the second looking at changes in the nature of transport investment.

Regulatory, Fiscal and Pricing Reform
Four main areas of change should be considered:-

  1. A shift from regulation by mode to a stronger emphasis on land-use planning and regulation suited to differing lengths and type of trip e.g external, Inter-city and intra-regional trips with the Scottish Government involved directly in the first two categories (within EU and/or UK law requirements) but a strong element of devolution to regions and communities in Scotland with associated funding powers (powers for most trunk roads, foot/cycle issues, local ferries and local public transport could be devolved –  Local Authorities already deal with local public roads but could gain from a transfer of several trunk roads to become a regional responsibility – as would traffic management, parking and franchising issues related to local movement)
  2. A phased transfer of present Scottish Government responsibilities (and funding) for local bus, rail & ferry  operations to strengthened Regional Partnerships with a shift to these bodies of present Scottish Government funding for Bus Operator Grant and for free bus travel compensation subject to concession (or low flat fare) travel being retained for travel by any local mode by those of state pension age and to those in other concession categories considered appropriate.
  3. A phased replacement of road fuel duty with electronic road pricing in a framework set by the Scottish Government and with proceeds earmarked for transport, access and environmental purposes.
  4. Scottish Government Targets and related measures to ensure delivery of low-carbon and action to cut surface transport carbon which could allow a lower rate of air travel carbon reduction

 The Nature and Structure of Transport Investment
At present, the high level of private spend on road vehicles, their maintenance and developing electronic technology is often forgotten in a debate about the level and nature of (mainly public) spending on infrastructure maintenance and enhancement.  Over the period to the 2040s, it may be that – as already evident from changes in the pattern of personal and business spending –  such private spending may edge  away from individual car ownership towards increased reliance on car hire or leasing and greater spend on other forms of transport and elsewhere in the economy facilitated by electronic communication.  This could lead to less movement (measured in passenger and freight kilometres) per head of population in a situation where population growth may be less than currently anticipated (the Scottish forecast remains low compared to south-east England).  But a significant fall in total movement remains unlikely compared to modest overall growth but with a continuing shift to longer-distance air travel and to rail for inter-regional trips (up to some 800 to 1,000 kilometres), for  city-region trips (including expansion of driverless trains) and for a higher share of rail trips in the tourist/leisure sector.

This points to a conclusion that there is no clear case for a marked rise in present Scottish levels of transport infrastructure investment – and, indeed, a case for a cut in present investment if it has to be funded from the use of general taxation to underpin increased public borrowing for major transport projects.  A different approach is needed to make the case for maintained, or higher, infrastructure investment.  The key elements in this case are:-

  • The increasing need to minimise the adverse impacts on transport of climate change bringing higher winds, higher rainfall and rising sea levels (as found in Scotland with landslide risks as on the A83 at ‘Rest and Be Thankful’, rising flood risks on road and rail routes plus problems of rising sea levels affecting coastal routes – as on the railway at Saltcoats and on the trunk road from Ardrossan to Wemyss Bay).
  • Cost-effective steps to improve local road/pavement and cycleway  maintenance and renewals  together with an enlarged programme for lesser improvements aiding both traffic, safety and the local environment.
  • An enlarged programme for upgrades within the existing rail network to shorten inter-city trip times and increase capacity while also giving better access to intermediate stations and to a co-ordinated City Metro rail, tram and quality bus network with a particular focus on Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
  • Rail network extensions creating a more inclusive network and sections of new route giving extra capacity and further cuts in trip times with longer sections of inter-regional route adapted to 110/125mph operation by 2030 and options for the creation of longer sections of new route suited to 160/180 mph operation by 2040.

Due to the large investments already made in the trunk road network but limited opportunities for shorter trip times and rises in usage, rail is well placed to secure further infrastructure investment, again in a phased manner with strong control of costs. Apart from proposals in the imminent Anglo-Scottish High Speed Rail report, it is difficult to prioritise long sections of new HSR route in Scotland.  The NR Scotland Route Study is right to stress the importance of improvements within the existing Scottish rail network yet it does give priority to a new section of route bypassing Dunfermline and other action to shorten trip times by upgrading the inland route from Edinburgh through Fife to Perth and Dundee.  It also proposes electrification of all the Scottish inter-city routes by 2040, including extending electrification from Dunblane via Perth to Dundee by 2024.

But finalised Scottish Transport Strategies could go further in seeking acceleration of electrification to Aberdeen and Inverness associated with a longer section of new route through Fife to the lower Earn with a direct link over the Tay to Dundee by 2030 and the potential addition of high-speed running through Strathmore by 2040.  This programme could cut longer Inter-city trips in Scotland by 30 minutes by 2030 and by 45 to 60 minutes by 2040. Best Glasgow-Edinburgh times would fall to 30 minutes.  Glasgow Airport would gain access to the rail network by 2025 with Edinburgh on the national rail network by 2035.

Other features which need to be considered in a finalised transport strategy include detailed proposal s for high quality city public transit, especially in and around Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, plus provision for a more inclusive rail network extended to places such as Hawick, Leven, St Andrew’s and Ellon by 2025 with land safeguards for further extensions which may prove justifiable in following years.

Transport Infrastructure :  Funding Issues
These present an opportunity, rather than a problem, for the economy and society if innovative approaches are pursued.  Rather than using general taxation to finance borrowing costs, there are options to fund borrowing costs through new ways of securing additional income while also adopting techniques lowering the cost of borrowing and including repayments over periods up to 60 years for major projects.  Actions requiring consideration, and early decisions, include:-

  1. A phased, rather than ‘stop and start’, approach making better use of scarce funding and skills.
  2. Measures to cut capital costs but without detriment to quality and safety in the preparation, delivery and subsequent maintenance of  improved infrastructure.
  3. A review of programmes for A9 (Perth-Inverness) and A96 (Inverness-Aberdeen ) dualling to allow funding transfers to smaller trunk road schemes and extra funding for Local Authority or Regional Transport bodies earmarked for transport and access.
  4. A phased shift from road fuel taxation and VED to electronic road pricing with part of net proceeds earmarked  for transport and access improvements (an initial phase could be higher levels of road fuel duty in conjunction with part of the proceeds becoming available for public transport and active travel schemes plus extended fuel rebates for areas with no local filling station).
  5. Earmarking of the majority of expected savings in rail franchise operating support for increased capital spend on rail (and a similar earmarking of a proportion of payments made by franchise holders for rail infrastructure improvement).  At present, a substantial but reducing annual payment is given to the ScotRail franchise operator under the terms of the franchise but rail capital spend by the Scottish Government is at a standstill in the 2016-17 Budget while trunk road capital spend sees an increase.  (Rising rail passenger usage, and income, is making it easier to lower operational support but there needs to be a transparent mechanism allowing part of such annual savings to go towards  higher capital spend on rail infrastructure).
  6. Action by Local Authorities or Regional Bodies to increase net income from parking and other charges subject to this being used for transport,  access and public realm purposes – including consideration of peak Monday to Friday parking charges at several park and ride sites already full by 9am.
  7. Action by public bodies to increase income or capital through the rental, redevelopment (especially at interchange hubs) or sale of  land presently owned, subject to outcomes improving the local environment rather than leading to over-development of sites.
  8. Greater use of ‘developer contributions’ towards transport improvements followed by legislation to permit ‘betterment’ property levies on routes with improved local public transit.
  9. Introduction of tourist taxation accruing to Local Authorities or Regional Bodies with proceeds earmarked for improved facilities for tourists.
  10. An expectation that larger businesses, including airports, would be expected as part of partnership agreements to make larger contributions to infrastructure schemes.
  11. Retention of APD at Scottish airports with more than 2m passengers a year with proceeds earmarked for improved public transport access to airports and for Anglo-Scottish HSR.

Tom Hart is a former Lecturer in Economic History, a member of the Scottish Association for Public Transport and an appointed member of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport