Scotland’s transport woes have rarely been out of the headlines this year. What does 2017 hold: will things get better? Can they get any worse?
As life returns to normal next week and those of us who haven’t had to toil over the festive period return to work or study, train users will be in for a nasty shock. A two percent price increase for peak time rail travel will kick in from 2 January, and around one percent for off peak.
The increases come after a year in which grumbling about Scotrail has gone from a background murmur to a national sport – and for good reason. Chronic underinvestment in the rail network over the last few decades has left it creaking at the seams, and the arrival of Abellio on the scene – who are ultimately owned by the Netherlands government – has seen Scotrail become a byword for lateness and unreliability. A blundering PR operation (overseen by the former chief spinner for Better Together and Strathclyde Police) has hardly helped, including such masterstrokes as announcing the end of hated “stop skipping” which actually turned out to be, well, total bullshit.
The Dutch firm continue to rake in over £1 million a month in profits from the contract while making, in their own words, “limited investment”. However “limited” that investment may be, repeated assertions of it are usually what they use to fend off any criticism, alongside promises about making improvements to their level of service.
Investment like the flashy new trains that will be rolled out over the next two years. What the press release from a few weeks ago neglected to mention, however, is that they will actually be owned in entirety by a Japanese bank, who will lease them to the holder of the Scotrail franchise for 25 years. This used to be known as PFI, and is similar to the model pioneered a couple of years ago with a new CalMac ferry, the Loch Seaforth, which is owned by Lloyds Bank.
The troubles at Scotrail have seen the idea of renationalisation enter the public imagination, after years of campaigning by unions. This is unlikely to come into play until at least 2020, when there is scope for a break in Abellio’s ten year contract – although whether it can successfully navigate the impenetrable bureaucracy that is Transport Scotland by then remains to be seen.
There are two main models this could adopt: that of CalMac, who are forced to compete against private companies like Serco for their routes every few years, or Scottish Water, who operate a nationalised monopoly for household supply. The latter would actually be nationalisation; the former is just introducing a public sector operator into a market, meaning it could easily revert to some global conglomerate whenever the tender comes round again (as East Coast recently did).
The trouble with Scotland’s transport system is far from limited to trains, however, which are at least actually regulated by the government. Buses also became a battleground this year, yet they struggled to capture the imagination in the same way, in part because the issue of who is culpable is so abstract.
While 80% of journeys on public transport are taken by bus, there is a plethora of private operators and they are effectively allowed to do whatever they like, accountable to only their own shareholders. Several bus routes in Glasgow – which First Group operate as a near monopoly – came in for the axe at various points this year. On every occasion, it went something like this:
- First Bus blamed falling bus speeds, which due to congestion caused by other vehicles, are 15% slower than a decade ago. Consequently, bus passengers declined by 22% over the same period, a major cause for concern.
- Labour blamed the SNP for failing to take action at a national level, and made noises about regulating the bus network.
- The SNP blamed Labour for not taking action at a local level, i.e. through Labour-dominated SPT. SPT have no power over private operators – but can offer them subsidies to keep services running, although this would effectively mean rewarding them for their own failure to run a viable service.
And so the downward spiral continued, with bus users continuing to suffer and standard fares in Glasgow hitting a staggering £2.15, likely leading to a further decline in passengers. With a cut in public subsidy for bus operators in the new Scot Gov budget (so less cash for the concession scheme for over 60s), fares are likely to spiral for other passengers over the next two years. Arguably, buses are in even graver crisis than trains – journeys across Scotland are down 15% since 2007.
While trains and buses have suffered, it’s been a vintage year for Scotland’s airports. Owned by obscure, tax haven based private entities for whom Scotland is a “product” and a “brand”, the main airports have reported record passenger numbers (aside from Aberdeen which continues to suffer from the oil downturn). And things can only get better, with a massive tax bung coming their way thanks to an alliance of the SNP and new APD-cut converts the Scottish Conservatives. Recently put forward as the second (!) legislative priority of the new SNP budget, the 50% cut in a tax that currently brings up to £300m per year to the Scottish Government will benefit few except the airlines and (wealthy) frequent flyers. As it happens, flights already have no VAT on them and airlines are exempt from fuel duty.
With the whole point of the tax being to stimulate more flights, this can only create more carbon emissions and noise pollution over (deprived) flightpath communities, calling the Scottish Government’s ambitious emissions reduction targets (down 80% from 1990 levels by 2050) into question. But not to worry, there’s going to be a “Strategic Environmental Assessment”. Well that’s all right then!
Great news for road fans if the latest Scot Gov budget is anything to go by – with motorways and trunk roads seeing by far the largest real terms increase in spending of any area of responsibility.
This represents a spending increase of 18%, in contrast to rail (up 3%), buses (down 3%), ferries (down 9%) and active travel (static). Scotland is already an incredibly car-centric nation, as its ever growing number of retail parks and out of town shopping centres testify. But the distribution of vehicles is unequal: in deprived areas it’s often the case that fewer than 50% have access to a car; in well-off areas virtually every household does.
Induced demand is very much a real thing – building more roads simply leads to more cars, and there is a wealth of data and studies to back this up. Anyone who tries getting across the Kingston Bridge at rush hour must be shocked to see that the £700m M74 extension that opened er, five years ago, has actually done fuck all to ease congestion, but probably done quite a lot to encourage more vehicles on to the road.
No doubt this huge funding increase will be used to finance more of the kind of dual carriageway that Scotland’s leading architect recently described as the “bleakest urban place” he had ever seen (a so-called “Regeneration Route” in Glasgow’s East End, soon set for a £70m extension!).
While this year saw publicly owned CalMac (thankfully) resecure the Clyde and Hebrides ferry contract for the next six years, the Shetland and Orkney contract is due to be renewed in 2018, with bidding set to get underway soon that will decide if it remains with Serco. Meanwhile on the Northern Isles freight contact, the RMT union is still trying to win the minimum wage for outsourced workers on a Scottish Government contract.
Down in Ayrshire, two communities are now battling over the location of the Arran ferry service, in a proxy war that says much about the absurdly competitive nature of public funding for Scottish local authorities, who are constantly forced into bidding wars with one another. Ardrossan in North Ayrshire is currently trying to fend off a speculative attempt by Troon in South Ayrshire to steal the Arran ferry, with the Scottish Government having the final say. In reality, it’s a farcical proxy war on behalf of the UK’s two primary port operators: ABP and Peel.
Both are ultimately owned in tax havens: one by Canadian pension funds and the Kuwaiti government, the other by a billionaire Isle of Man tax exile and a wealthy Saudi family. Exactly the sort of people who should have a stake in providing strategic, lifeline public services to Scottish island communities…
Finally to active travel, i.e. what’s known as walking and cycling to normal people, I finally got into it properly when I started using the best headphones for bike riding, before that I would get bored and worried quickly. Hilarious as it is, the Scottish Government currently have a target that 10% of all travel will be by bike by 2020. Given that cycling’s share peaked at 1.4% in 2014 and actually declined the following year to 1.2%, they have some way to go if they’re to hit the target within the next three years.
Cycling is an efficient mode of transport in an urban environment. But people will only take it up if they have a perception that it’s safe to do so, and there is little to entice them at present. With a tiny proportion of transport funds allocated to active travel, projects are made to compete against each other for funding or simply do not happen.
The attitude of some dinosaur local authorities – like in Ayr, where SNP and Tory councillors recently voted to tear up a £60,000 segregated bike lane, or East Dunbartonshire, where councillors voted against extending a popular segregated route, can hardly help. “Car ownership is high in Milngavie and Bearsden. People work hard to own a car and run it and they should not be penalised for that,” argued a Bearsden SNP councillor. Quite.
If the Scottish Government are serious about meeting their climate targets, a rethink of transport priorities will have to take place. Change will not happen by itself: it doesn’t matter how many “commitments” they have to public transport or active travel, as if funding continues to be poured into trunk roads then people will continue to drive everywhere. And who can blame them.
For a shift to happen, we need a long term investment strategy, but one that is not simply about funnelling subsidies into shareholders’ pockets or mysterious offshore entities. To what extent that happens is up to all of us: the noises now being made about a public sector bid for Scotrail are a direct result of grassroots campaigning and prevailing public opinion. The SNP have made a lot of promises, now we need to hold them to account.