Reform Scotland

Track to The Future

Former Transport Minister calls for Network Rail to be devolved

Reform Scotland, the independent, non-party think tank, has published Track to the Future, its blueprint for modernising Scotland’s railways.

The report has been written by Reform Scotland’s Research Director Alison Payne and Tom Harris, the former Labour Transport Minister in the UK Government and now a Reform Scotland Advisory Board member.

The report thoroughly researches the problems, and suggests solutions which could transform our railways. The report finds that:

  • responsibility for managing and running the rail network is complicated with many different actors, and when something goes wrong it is often not the fault of a single entity
  • over the last year, 54% of Scotrail’s delays (over three minutes) were a result of faults attributed to Network Rail, which is already a public body, albeit one which is ultimately accountable to Westminster not Holyrood.
  • journey times in Scotland compare unfavourably with those of a similar distance in England e.g.
    • Edinburgh to Aberdeen and London to Birmingham are roughly the same distance, but the former takes well over 2 hours and the latter less than 90 minutes
    • Birmingham and Manchester are 25% further apart than Glasgow and Dundee, but the train takes 15 minutes less to arrive
  • the Scottish Government’s railway investment is welcome, but upgrading lines while trying to simultaneously use them is complex and can cause additional problems
  • previous investments such as the Borders Railway were limited and short-sighted – it is not electrified, it is single-track, and the new bridges were build in such a way as to be unable to accommodate double-track, meaning the potential benefit of linking the service up to Carlisle is harder to realise
  • under current proposals, over the next thirty years people will be able to travel by train to London from the Central Belt quicker than they will be able to reach Inverness, despite the former being around 400 miles while the latter is only 160 miles

The report, therefore, calls for three, simple, immediately possible solutions which would put Scotland on the right track for the future:

  1. Network Rail should be devolved so that the Scottish route is answerable to the Scottish Government, offering a clear line of accountability when something goes wrong
  2. The Scottish Government should future-proof all new rail investment by ensuring that it is double-track and electrified where possible.
  3. The Scottish Government should create a bold and ambitious Scottish Rail Infrastructure Commission, similar to High Speed North from the National Infrastructure Commission, which looks at how we want our cities and towns to be connected decades from now, including faster links from the central belt to both the north and the south, and looking at strategic inter- and intra-city rail links within Scotland.

“The current debate over whether or not to nationalise Scotrail misses the point. 54% of delays are the fault of Network Rail. Nationalising Scotrail won’t make the trains run on time and it is self-defeating for any politician to imply otherwise.

“Instead, we need fundamental change to the governance of Network Rail. The Scottish Government is responsible for the strategic direction and funding of the Scottish rail network, but this responsibility cannot be properly exercised while Network Rail remains answerable to the UK Government.

“Reform Scotland believes that Network Rail in Scotland should be fully accountable to the Scottish Government, and that means it must be devolved.

“However, there is also a serious long-term problem. Ongoing improvements are vital and the Scottish Government should be congratulated for investing in this area, but we need to think about the bigger picture and create a bold strategy for the future.

“Our rail infrastructure is deficient. We should not tolerate a situation where a resident of Glasgow can get to London faster than she can get to Inverness, because Scotland’s cities are too poorly connected.

“We should demand strategic action. So Reform Scotland is today calling on the Scottish Government to create a Scottish Rail Infrastructure Commission to examine what ambitious transformational projects and new railway lines we need to boost the Scottish economy and transform our connectivity as a nation.”