Scottish rail’s upward curve.
The Rail Delivery Group’s initial industry advice offers guidance on the projects that need to be forwarded, and the varied ways in which they can be funded. PHILIP HAIGH reports
“RDG’s initial industry advice recognises that to attract money, the railway must become trusted to deliver projects, and it admits that it must learn lessons from the current troubled programme.”
SCOTLAND’S railway is witnessing considerable improvements. There’s around £1.8 billion of investment flowing into tracks and trains, with new fleets and electrification as well as improvements to the Highland Main Line and elsewhere.
And from June 2018, ScotRail will bring in a new timetable that adds 200 extra daily services and faster, limited-stop services between Edinburgh and Glasgow and to Inverness and Aberdeen.
These changes will provide a better service for today’s passengers and are likely to generate more in the future. There’s likely to be considerable appetite to continue improving the railway network north of the border.
With a substantial electrification programme under way, ScotRail and Network Rail are well-placed to help the Scottish Government deliver its commitment to cut CO emissions by at least 42% by 2020 and 80% by 2050.
Even then, the most environmentally friendly travel option is to not travel at all. That could involve working from home for those that can, even if only on some days of the week. However, rail fares do not make this easy, with season tickets optimised for full-time travel to work. Nor does the railway optimise the way it runs trains - demand varies with morning and evening peaks, but many trains run in fixed formations all day.
In its initial industry advice (IIA) to the Scottish Government, the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) notes that Edinburgh-Helensburgh trains via Airdrie and Bathgate run in six-car formations all day.
In CO terms, that’s over 4,500 tonnes per year, while costs are £2 million a year more than they might be if train formations were better tailored to demand. However, the fixed six-car trains are operationally easier, and this remains an important consideration when there’s pressure on punctuality.
If nothing else, this example shows the choices, compromises and decisions faced by Scotland’s Government as it considers what it wants from the railway over the five years of Control Period 6 from 2019. Good transport links help people reach work, and they help goods to be moved between factories and consumers. Rail works well in mass markets, whether that’s thousands of people travelling into a city centre, hundreds of containers from a port, or thousands of tonnes of stone from a quarry.
Scotland’s railway is characterised by an intensively used network around Glasgow, with busy corridors to Edinburgh and towards Stirling. Longer routes link this Central Belt northwards to Aberdeen and Inverness. Then there are important (but slower and quieter) routes to remoter towns such as Fort William, Oban, Mallaig, Wick, Thurso and Kyle of Lochalsh.
There is no shortage of projects to further improve the railway (see panel), but the RDG’s IIA is suggesting that they be developed in a different way to previous Control Periods so that decisions on detailed specifications do not have to be made before a robust business case exists.
RDG advises that enhancements are sequentially developed in a pipeline, which should prevent the problems encountered in CP5 (2014-19), when a glut of electrification projects overwhelmed Network Rail and the supply industry’s capability.
IIA proposes a series of business cases. Enhancements would start with a strategic outline business case making the case for the project and explaining how it contributes to the Scottish Government’s objectives. Success would lead to an outline scheme being developed, and an outline business case on which a commitment to design the preferred option would rest.
Finally comes a full business case that confirms the value for money of the preferred option and provides an engineering design that gives definitive costs, timings, resources and risks. Commitment here comes at an agreed price and level of risk.
RDG expects funding for any projects to come from more than one source, rather than the traditional model of the Government providing the money. This is partly because it expects Government to have less money to spend on the railway, but also because devolution is expected to shift money elsewhere - for example, to City Deals. RDG’s IIA recognises that to attract money, the railway must become trusted
to deliver projects, and it admits that it must learn lessons from the current troubled programme.
Money could also come from Section 75 contributions (from developers and which is called Section 106 contributions in England and Wales). This has already yielded significant funding for new stations at Kintore and Robroyston, according to RDG.
However, the group notes that developers are not likely to provide support as strong as that found around London. It also advises that the Scottish Government may need to define some financial and strategic priorities if third-party money is to be attracted to rail. In other words, the Government will need to show commitment if it’s to expect similar from third parties.
Such funding need not just support Network Rail’s coffers, it might also go towards ScotRail’s services.
RDG uses as an example the electrification and improvements to the Shotts line (the fourth corridor between Edinburgh and Glasgow - the others run via Carstairs, Airdrie and Polmont). These make possible a more frequent service than ScotRail’s contract requires. Local authorities could contribute to the costs of running more trains by using council tax receipts collected from new houses built to take advantage of the better railway, RDG suggests.
The RDG’s list of enhancements could be mistaken for a shopping list of what the railway wants to see. The largest section is the category labelled as projects essential to maintain a safe and high-performing railway. None of the projects within it are specifically for safety, so there’s considerable scope for the Scottish Government to decide not to proceed with them.
Capacity can be delivered by using longer trains that might need longer platforms, rather than by building new tracks to cope with more frequent trains. Even if frequencies do increase, a price paid in poorer punctuality might be more acceptable than one paid in money to remodel pinch-points if cash is tight.
These choices will need to be captured in business cases to better explain them. Testing each potential project against the Scottish Government’s policies will show clearly whether they deserve taxpayers’ money. It also makes the railway more than ever under government control, 20 years after British Rail ran its final train in Scotland as the network was privatised. Whether a private track owner and private train operators would construct the same list as RDG remains an interesting, but largely academic, question.
Those interested in Scotland’s railway will discover what the Government wants this summer, when it publishes its High Level Output Specification. They should also discover how much the Government is prepared to pay.