Transport revolution is key to our recovery- The Scotsman

This article by Ben Thomson appeared in the Scotsman.

The economic focus in Scotland over recent months has been on the recession, the ballooning UK Government spending deficit and what this will mean for budgets here in Scotland. But now is exactly the time when we should be looking ahead and planning how we can create the infrastructure that will help drive the Scottish economy in future.

Reform Scotland’s latest research paper, ‘Power to Connect’, sets out the role that first-class transport links can play in fostering economic growth.

We want to see a transformation of the transport network in Scotland which creates a truly integrated system for the next generation. This would centre on a transport hub at Ingliston, connected through the airport to other countries and combined with high-speed rail and better road links between our key cities and south to England.

This can be achieved only if we are prepared to implement strategic national projects which deliver long-term benefits to the Scottish economy rather than various piecemeal developments.

Such a bold, ambitious vision will not come cheap, with the high-speed rail links alone costing in the region of £25 billion. However, this would be done in stages over a number of years starting with the high-speed link connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh to the central hub at a cost of under £3 billion.

The key point is that this would be a genuine investment in our future prosperity and if we are serious about catching up with the leading world economies then it is a step we must take. That is why we need to examine all the possible funding options to turn this vision into reality. This would include the additional borrowing powers that the Calman Commission proposed should be given to the Scottish Parliament as well as the international examples of innovative ways in which infrastructure projects can be funded which Reform Scotland will examine in a future report.

The potential benefits in economic terms of such an investment are well documented. The importance of cities and city regions to the Scottish economy is widely recognised because they increase specialisation and integration which in turn promotes greater productivity. Reducing journey times by rail and road between our key cities would increase the scale and reach of city regions bringing companies, suppliers and potential employees closer together.

High speed connections have proved to be a catalyst for economic growth in Denmark, France and Spain. For example, the 10-mile Oresund Bridge, which links Copenhagen, in Denmark, and Malmo, in Sweden, and is used by high-speed trains as well as cars, has brought these two cities together to create a single, multinational conurbation of 3.5 million people – the largest in Scandinavia. The bridge has resulted in a growing number of firms operating on both sides of the bridge and the flow of traffic across the bridge has more than doubled as people travel to work or for leisure. Further, the Oresund region has seen its share of inward investment in Scandinavia increase from 27 per cent to 38 per cent making it the most successful region in Scandinavia in attracting such investment.

Similar economic benefits have been seen in those cities in France and Spain connected by high-speed rail links. In France, the TGV high-speed network has been vital to the regeneration of cities such as Lyon and Lille, while in Spain the AVE has had a similar effect on Seville and has captured half of the air traffic from Madrid to Barcelona.

The benefits have been seen in other countries and independent analysis by the engineering consultancy Atkins shows that a north-south high-speed link connecting London to Edinburgh and Glasgow would cost £31 billion but the economic benefit could be as much as £63 billion.

Our proposals would bring these potential benefits to Scotland. The airport at Ingliston is the best site for our proposed transport hub as with a new railway station and high-speed links it could be reached from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Stirling in under 20 minutes. Journey times to Scotland’s other key cities of Perth, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness would also be massively reduced as well as to the crucial markets in the rest of the United Kingdom. It would be the focal point within the central belt for a properly integrated network of road, rail and air transportation and renamed Grand Central Airport and Station to reflect its national role.

The importance of road transportation to our economy should not be forgotten which is why we have proposed proper road links into our central transport hub. Much investment has gone into improving our road network in recent decades, yet gaps remain. In particular, both the A9 and A96 should be turned into dual carriageways to improve road links between cities in the north and north east of Scotland that are vital to our economic success.

We must also reduce congestion on our roads. Investment in high-speed rail will help, but we think road pricing is worthy of further investigation because, in countries where it has been tried, it has succeeded in reducing congestion resulting in shorter journey times and increased reliability. This solution only really becomes viable when Scotland becomes more responsible for taxation as Vehicle Excise and Fuel Duties would have to be reduced to show that road pricing was a different and more effective way of paying for the use of roads and not an additional means of raising revenue.

An efficient transport network is an essential component of the right framework for economic growth and it is the job of government to create that framework. Although our transport system has improved, we have not introduced the revolutionary change seen in some other countries.

Reform Scotland’s proposals offer a blueprint for a transformation of the transport system in Scotland which is also a bold economic policy. We believe it is the vision that Scotland needs at this time. We just need the political will to turn that vision into reality.