The Scottish Transport Conference 2014

Every so often Mackay Hannah organise a Transport Conference in Scotland. They are very interesting with a good range of high level speakers and always efficiently run. This year’s followed those guide lines but was especially interesting because the keynote address was given by the Scottish Minister for Transport and Veterans, the Scottish National Party’s Keith Brown MSP.

A strange mix of jobs you might think but most Scottish Ministers have dual roles. Keith is unusual compared to Westminster’s Ministers of Transport in that he has been in the post for four years. What he had to say was coloured by the upcoming Referendum on Independence for Scotland which he is, unsurprisingly, in favour of.

Since devolution, the Scottish Parliament has had a very robust attitude towards transport and given it greater prominence in both planning and expenditure than the Westminster Government. It has also carried out some very major transport improvements in Scotland, and speedily took the need for a new road crossing of the Firth of Forth from idea to fact. Anyone who has crossed the Forth recently either by road or rail cannot fail to have seen the progress being made on the building of the new crossing scheduled to open in 2016.

Currently this £1.45bn project is on time and on budget, in fact the budget has been reduced from its original estimate of £1.6bn. That’s more than can be said for the Edinburgh tram which is currently running way over budget and years late – but the Scottish Government would argue that the tram is not their project it is merely one they have supported. The tram is a City of Edinburgh project. Whilst in Edinburgh I saw a tram running on trial, not in service; that is still a little way off. The current projected date is May 2014. The project was started in 2007 and should have been completed in February 2011 at a cost of £498m. Current estimates are £776m and that is only for half of the original scheme!

The troubled Edinburgh Tram should finally start operating this year. Three years late, £300m overspent and that’s for only half the original system

The troubled Edinburgh Tram should finally start operating this year. Three years late, £300m overspent and that’s for only half the original system

Since Devolution the Scottish Government has invested £9bn in transport investment. Currently, Westminster restricts the capital funding it makes available to Scotland and its ability to borrow money independently. The Scottish Government believe that under Independence they would have the ability to raise capital more easily and far more cheaply than is possible under the current arrangements.

The Scottish Parliament is also very pro bus and coach. It recognises that, for a huge part of Scotland, public transport using buses and coaches is the only method and therefore is supportive in a much more proactive way, even down at community and social mobility level. They are right because the reduction of the rural rail network under Beeching in the 1960-70s left huge areas of the country and some major cities and population centres with no rail connection.

Even at the every day operating level the Scottish Parliament adopts a more pro bus and coach attitude with better support of vital bus services and better concessionary travel rates.

In presenting the picture set out by Keith Brown at the Conference I am merely echoing his words. I am not presenting them as a case for or against Independence. I am not Scottish but like many in the wider UK I am interested in what is proposed and how it might affect the wider interests of our industry and the nation.

So what will happen if Scotland does go independent? As you would expect Keith Brown was very bullish. The Scottish Parliament over many years has been very active in improving its major road network although many could have wished for even more. They have made substantial improvements with roads like the M74 extension, the upgrading of the M8 and on-going improvements to roads like the A75, the A9 and many others, but they were starting from a bad place. Spending on Scottish major roads in the previous 30 years had been woeful.

Dualling of the A9, the vital road that links Glasgow and Edinburgh to Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness has already begun and Keith Brown was at pains to say that this would remain a key programme going forward with the aim of completion by 2025. But he went further by saying that after Independence the aim is to have all Scottish cities connected to the Forth-Clyde corridor by a minimum of dual carriageways by 2030.

Even in the next financial year 2014-15, irrespective of the Independence issue, Scotland is spending a lot on road improvements – £638m.

Like Westminster, the Scottish Government is also very rail orientated and it has spent huge sums on upgrading its rail system, including building new and re-opening closed lines. That would definitely continue after Independence. Interestingly the ScotRail rail franchise comes up for renewal next year. The ScotRail franchise is currently held by First and they are looking to keep it but are up against some stiff competition from Arriva, National Express, MTR from Hong Kong, and Dutch firm Abellio. There is also a new Caledonian Sleeper franchise. First who currently run the sleeper trains, Arriva and Serco are bidding for that. The Scottish Government has set some pretty tough performance targets for potential bidders to meet.

The Scottish Government is very pro HS2 but very unhappy about the projected delivery time. They passionately want to see major improvements made between Scotland and the North of England and are calling on the Westminster Government to adopt a multi-centred approach with construction rail heads being started in Glasgow and Edinburgh and in key North England centres like Newcastle, Carlisle, York, Leeds and Manchester at the same time and working towards each other, thus reducing the build time dramatically. They are also committed independently under Independence to establish a high speed rail link between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

They are clearly unhappy with the current rail arrangements whereby they have little or no involvement in cross border services and feel they are being side-lined. A typical example is a businessman from Manchester or Newcastle trying to make a meeting in either Glasgow or Edinburgh for 9am. Neither is possible, yet both can easily make a meeting in London by that time.

Interestingly, in his presentation, whilst Keith Brown was strong on Scotland being independent it is obvious that he and the current Scottish Government see links with the North of England as absolutely vital. They have big plans to work with and forge alliances with North English Councils which they believe can bring huge benefits to both areas. As someone who lives in that area I know that there is actually a body of opinion that feels they might be better off becoming part of Scotland than remaining in England!

Minister for Transport and Veterans, Scottish Parliament, Keith Brown MSP

Minister for Transport and Veterans, Scottish Parliament, Keith Brown MSP

In his presentation Keith Brown said they would definitely be looking at introducing some form of fuel price regulator to reduce the ever increasing cost of fuel and they would also halve Air Passenger Duty as a prelude to removing it altogether. He firmly believes that APD is seriously harming Scotland’s aviation industry and that it is also having a serious effect on inward investment. Whilst some bus and coach operators might wince at the prospect of more money going to the aviation industry, it should be remembered that busy airports are huge generators of business for bus and coach operators.

One statement by Keith Brown really sums up the SNP’s approach ‘the limitations of Devolution are clear. The ability to integrate our internal transport networks fully and improve our connectivity to the community of nations is hampered by a lack of borrowing power and Westminster’s insistence on an inequitable transport policy that is based primarily on maintaining the economic primacy of London and South East.’

Keith Brown said that the Scottish Government is planning to spend double the amount the Westminster Government spends per head of population on transport through to 2019. It is also committed to retaining free concessionary travel for all over 60s and disabled passengers.

Currently 13 specialist transport organisations managed by the Westminster Government also cover Scotland and the current Scottish Government sees many of these continuing, at least in the first few years, but it does also see the introduction of some significant changes as well. One of these is a Graduated Drivers Licensing System to restrict what young drivers are able to drive and, it claims, thereby reduce the serious loss of life in this sector. Whilst in the early years it plans to continue to use the services of the DVLA, VOSA, DSA and VCA or their replacement, it ultimately intends to set up its own organisation, probably in the second Parliament after Independence. It also intends to retain a Traffic Commissioner or some similar system.

Integration of the transport network fully with other infrastructure networks is seen as crucial to growing the Scottish economy following Independence The SNP believe it will allow them to align transport policy with energy policy to achieve their ambitious decarbonisation targets. Crucial to these are the electrification of much of the rail network and a major increase in the use of electric or carbon neutral road vehicles. It sees transport working closely with the renewable energy generation sector and the use of smart grid technologies as vital steps in driving down transport emissions and achieving almost complete decarbonisation of road transport by 2050.

Now the other side of the argument was not put at the conference so in the interests of balance I’ll give a little space to what the anti-independence lobby feels about the situation. Called the Better Together group the anti-independence lobby headed by former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, has not gone into specifics about how Independence would affect specific areas like transport but has adopted a much wider approach.

It says, ‘Times are really tough at home and really turbulent internationally. In the future Scotland’s prosperity will be strengthened by keeping the British connection. We need more growth, more jobs, and more prosperity in Scotland. We don’t need uncertainty, instability, and barriers for our businesses.

In these tough and turbulent times, the size, strength and stability of the UK economy is a huge advantage for Scotland’s businesses. Scotland’s largest market is the rest of the UK. The UK is the world’s oldest and most successful single market and the UK has the oldest and most successful currency – the pound.

Scottish businesses are increasingly having to win orders against smart, efficient and productive firms in foreign markets. These competitive challenges will only get tougher in the years ahead. The UK is better placed than a separate Scotland or England to help our businesses find and win new orders across the world.’

I’ll leave you to make up your own minds whether Independence for Scotland will be better or worse for the bus and coach industry and I guess views will vary depending on where you operate and what work you do.

I don’t know whether the Scottish people will vote for Independence but no one can accuse the current SNP government of not having considered the future of transport if they do achieve it. What I am certain of is that even if they don’t achieve independence they will almost certainly win substantial extra concessions and freedom from Westminster. So there will be change.

Hydrogen Bus

Andrew Win part of the Aberdeen City Council team delivering the H2 hydrogen project

Andrew Win part of the Aberdeen City Council team delivering the H2 hydrogen project

Another presentation which was particularly interesting from a bus and coach point of view was made by Andrew Win, Senior City Development Executive of Aberdeen City Council and this concerned the steps being taken by the Council to become a Centre of Excellence for the use of hydrogen as a means of cutting greenhouse gases. The city has secured £20m to mount a demonstration project called H2 to show the feasibility of developing a hydrogen infrastructure. €10m has been provided by the European Union under the JTI funding scheme associated with the High V.LO-City and HyTransit programmes which are aimed at establishing the wider use of hydrogen as a clean fuel. Additional funding has come from both the UK Government and the Scottish Government. The scheme involves the creation of a hydrogen production and refuelling centre in Aberdeen. This is being developed by BOC and Scottish and Southern Energy. The centre will produce not only hydrogen as a fuel for powering vehicles but also utilise hydrogen for producing electricity. The hydrogen will be generated using a 1Mega Watt electrolyser and will produce around 200kg of hydrogen per day.

Ten of these Van Hool A330 hydrogen powered buses will begin operating in Aberdeen this year. This is a demonstration vehicle, the final appearance may differ

Ten of these Van Hool A330 hydrogen powered buses will begin operating in Aberdeen this year. This is a demonstration vehicle, the final appearance may differ

One of the most visible signs of the project will be the introduction into service in the city of a fleet of 10 hydrogen fuel cell powered buses. The ten buses are being built by Van Hool and will be their A330 13.15m single deck units mounted on three axles. The vehicles will be powered by a Ballard 150kW FC Velocity TM-HD6 fuel cell module which will generate electricity to power the Siemens hybrid drive system.

The buses are due to enter service later this year and will be operated by both First and Stagecoach, the two main operators in the city. First will operate four of the buses and Stagecoach will operate six.


Martin Dorchester, CEO David MacBrayne Ltd

Martin Dorchester, CEO David MacBrayne Ltd

Another very interesting presentation at the conference was made by Martin Dorchester, CEO of David MacBrayne Ltd. He is also MD of their operating subsidiaries Argyll Ferries and Caledonian MacBrayne Ferries or CalMac as it is generally known. The name CalMac will be well known to coach operators because they are the principle ferry operators between the Scottish mainland and the offshore islands on the West Coast of Scotland. They operate 31 ferries serving 25 destinations. In summer they operate 475 services a day and even in winter there are 325 sailings daily.

Apart from their role as providers of links to the islands for Scotland’s important tourism industry, they are life-lines for the communities on the outer islands. For many the CalMac ferry is the only link with the mainland. Whilst some do have air services the vast majority don’t and even those that do have air services these are usually only provided by small aircraft. Therefore for the bulk of their supplies the ferry is absolutely vital.

A Highland Heritage Van Hool comes off a CalMac ferry. They carry 11,500 coaches a year! (Pic:Dennis Hardley).

A Highland Heritage Van Hool comes off a CalMac ferry. They carry 11,500 coaches a year! (Pic:Dennis Hardley).

The ferries are vital to the UK coach industry not just Scotland. CalMac carried a staggering 11,500 coaches in 2012 and whilst the final figures are not yet available for 2013 it is expected to be even higher. So whilst CalMac’s services are crucial to coach operators, in turn the industry is a major creator of revenue for the ferry company.

The world’s first hybrid powered roll-on/roll-off ferry is CalMac’s M.V.Hallaig

The world’s first hybrid powered roll-on/roll-off ferry is CalMac’s M.V.Hallaig

Even in the world of shipping hybrid power is showing its face. CalMac became the first company in the world to introduce a sea-going hybrid powered roll-on/roll-off ferry when it commissioned the new M.V.Hallaig last year. This 500 tonne, 44m long ferry was introduced on the Skye Sconser to Raasay route last year. It is not a huge ferry compared to many that CalMac run, it can carry 23 cars, two coaches or lorries and 150 passengers. It was built in Scotland by Fergusons of Glasgow and will be followed later this year by a second identical vessel that Fergusons are building. This will be called the M.V.Lochinvar and she will enter service on the Tarbet to Portavadie route.

As ever, the Transport Scotland Conference produced plenty of interesting information but of course it was dominated by the vision for Transport in Scotland should the referendum decide in favour of independence.

By Rob Orchard

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