BY RAIL TO OMDURMAN (Change at Galashiels)
Huttonian has been forwarded by a member of the Borders Party an article from the Scotsman about the public spending debate in Scotland suggesting how the Scottish Tories, traditionally, in recent years anyhow, almost irrelevant to politics here, might seek to make an impact at Edinburgh. The section relating to the Borders is as followsSitting on her mare not sure whether to enter the fray, maybe not sure which side to back - for over the last eighteen months she has been riding with both sides, is General Goldie. The Scottish Boadicea of Bishopton. But what can the Tories do, how can they make themselves relevant to the public spending debate in Scotland?
One way they could make an impact would be to make more of a noise about the many expensive Labour strategies of the past that the SNP has adopted and is now defending as its own. The first place to start must be halting the Borders Railway line and then identifying other such unaffordable luxuries, such as the unnecessary Glasgow Airport Rail Link.
The Borders railway is still mistakenly referred to as the Waverley Line, it is no such thing, that was twin track and went all the way through Galashiels and Hawick on to Carlisle – this one shall be single track halting at Tweedbank, between Gala and Melrose. The proposed commuter line has never made economic sense for it was always a political trade off between Labour and the Liberal Democrats that neither the SNP or the Tories would attack as they thought there were votes in it for them too.
The Scottish Parliament expected £3.6m of year one revenues based on an average fare of £2.75, implying 1.3 million trips. Of these about one fifth would be in the southernmost 25-mile stretch of the line towards Gala. Rail sceptics Transport Watch estimated that, in common with the rest of the UK’s community rail network, such a line would require operating subsidy of £5m-£7m even before capital cost, priced at Government gilt yields, is added in. So the £2.75 average fare could in reality be supported by double that amount in subsidy.
The basic numbers of the scheme have always been challenged, originally by rail engineering specialists Arup Associates, and we now know that the first business case that all the political parties marshalled behind was indeed a sham. We know this because in a recent report for Transport Scotland, the government body that now runs the project, the infrastructure consultants Cyril Sweett say as much.
Apart from cost levels being understated, the projections were “not robust”, the programme “overly optimistic” with “significant flaws” and with presentation of information “very poor”, including “erroneous calculations”. Errors included a failure to cost in the connection of the branch line to the main network and a projection of 400 peak time passenger numbers that the three carriage trains that hold 200 would be too small to carry - with no allowance for additional carriages. It was this business case that Parliament approved by one-hundred-and-fourteen votes to one. The proposed railway line has since been criticised by John Kay, a key economic advisor to the SNP Government.
So a new business case has been developed, in which time the cost has soared from £75m, through £151m at parliamentary approval in 2006, to a ‘range’ of between £235m-£295m – the allowable variable being almost as large as the original price!
For reinforcement, the train set brigade could point to an analogous project in Wales, the Ebbw Vale line linking the former South Wales steel town with Cardiff has a similar catchment population in the communities its serves. Here, an expected 22,000 trips forecast was outstripped by a doubling of actual journeys attained to 44,000. Unfortunately the better than expected real annualised figure of about half million in Wales serves to underline the nonsense of the predicted demand in the Scottish Borders of a staggering 1.3 million journeys.
More damning is that the Ebbw Vale line was already in existence for freight and cost only £40m to upgrade - against the probable £295m for the Borders. No solace there then.
Most damning of all though, and surely the reason that the Tories can save taxpayers across Scotland a big bill, is that the business case relies on 14,000 new homes being built to feed into Edinburgh’s workforce - a number the Sweett study calculated should be 23,500! This just is not going to happen. Not now, not for a long, long time to come.
The big question is though, will General Goldie and her platoon be brave enough to make the charge? Regularly attacked on all fronts they need to do something or their best hope will be that they are ignored – left to a slow political death as the grim reaper harvests their members and many of their voters. Surely it makes more sense to go on the attack and charge at Swinney’s positions winning support from Labour renegades that always doubted the scheme?
Like at Omdurman they might lose some casualties, but at least Kitchener’s 21st Lancers did clear the path for eventual victory.
the author,Brian Monteith, is a policy advisor to www.ThinkScotland.org
Dingers and incomers alike seem indifferent to the debate on whether or not there should be a railway. Not much use to Eastern Borderers who wait with baited breath for the great passenger rail Mecca at Reston to be reopened. No doubt, useful or not, we will be called upon to help finance what could rapidly become as pale elephantine as the Millennium Dome. Until some grandson of Beeching comes up to put us all all out of a misery and the long narrow strip occupied by the Waverley Line reverts to what it does best:
(Image is an optimist's impression of the marshaling yards at Tweedbank issued by the Waverley Line's Supporters Association. Motto 'Edinburgh and Bust'))
Labels: Borders Party, Tories in Scotland, Waverley Line