Transport Matters: Travel has no quick fix

editorial image

Speed limit enforcement in Scotland is about to be tightened. From ‘later this year’ (whatever that means) drivers whose speed creeps just over the limit will receive a formal warning, with the implication that a second offence will result in prosecution.

Until now there has been a formula which has meant that no action is taken until the speed reaches quite a lot above the limit, with the result that drivers have become used to treating speed limits as targets with a fair degree of flexibility in respect of ‘shorts and overs’.

The new arrangements will mean that wise drivers will aim to set their speed at around five miles per hour less than the limit, to be on the safe side. This will make traffic flow more smoothly and safely, and will reduce running costs for drivers, who will spend less on fuel, tyre wear and brake-pad replacement, as well as giving their passengers a more relaxed and comfortable ride.

Borderers who use Berwick railway station will be aware that there will be big changes on the railway by the end of this decade. One of the best will be the introduction of local services to and from Edinburgh, with a new station at Reston, and this will deliver what people have been asking for in the form of a late service from Edinburgh.

At present the last train is 2100 except on Saturdays, when it is 1900. The proposed local service timetable includes a train from Edinburgh at 2233 on weekdays (Mondays to Saturdays). The frequency will be every two hours on weekdays and every three hours on Sundays.

On the Long Distance High Speed services, the present fleet of diesel High Speed Trains (HSTs) will be replaced by new trains currently being assembled near Darlington, which will be bi-mode – they will be electric from London to Edinburgh and diesel from Edinburgh northwards.

With changes to track and signalling, journey times will be reduced, but experience both here and throughout Europe suggests that passenger comfort will be sacrificed to capacity, ie they will be more cramped. All new trains seem to be less comfortable than those they replace, a trend which began forty years ago and will continue until passengers complain.

Several speculative service patterns have been published for the 2020 timetable. As recently as June one suggested that Berwick would cease to have direct services to and from London, and it even cheerfully admitted that the connections at Newcastle would not be good. The following month, however, what seemed a more definitive pattern showed that Berwick’s hourly services to London would continue, but instead of being non-stop south of York would call also at Doncaster and Peterborough. On balance, that might be even more acceptable than the present arrangement.

The aim of the East Coast timetable has for many years been to provide a sufficiently quick connection between Edinburgh and Newcastle and London to make it unnecessary for people to fly. This has still not quite been achieved, as it is still impossible to travel by train from London to Edinburgh to arrive much before midday.

The French overcame a similar difficulty by building entirely new high-speed lines to by-pass the historic lines serving intermediate towns. We are belatedly following this example by planning HS2, which will enable trains from Scotland to by-pass the most congested parts of England on their way to London.

Opposition to HS2 has unfortunately centred on the time-saving over the southern section south of Birmingham, as though that were its purpose, and we have lacked any politician apparently able to explain it clearly. If we had, the people of Scotland would be strongly behind it.

If the number of internal flights could be reduced significantly, there would be no need for a debate about an increase in airport capacity in the south-east of England.

Heathrow should not have to function as a hub airport, which function is better served by Schipol at Amsterdam, for the whole of north-west Europe. Now the high-speed line from Brussels to Amsterdam is operational, fast trains are planned from London to Amsterdam.

In common with local authorities elsewhere, the Scottish Borders Council is having to seek economies. One result is that bus service reductions and withdrawals have reached strategic routes, such as Kelso – Jedburgh – Hawick.

There is a fundamental difference between strategic routes and local services for individual settlements. Strategic bus routes are similar to railways, covering longer distances than local routes, and having much more diverse types of user. Some of those users may have been former users of local services.

Most local bus routes have long since been withdrawn, or at least diminished to the point where they are used only by a very select number of people. The use of public money to support such services has almost entirely ceased, and the official government advice is to ‘do it yourself’ – ie create a shared car (lift-giving) arrangement or community bus service.

Strategic routes are more intractable. The established operators are reluctant to make positive changes, on grounds changes may drive away more people than they attract, and the last situation is worse than the first. Negative changes such as raising fares and reducing services always lose customers. Operators and their local authority sponsors are then in a dilemma which can only be resolved by increasing the level of public support.

It is when this last resort method fails that political rather than operational solutions have to be found, such as whether people want or need the bus service more than the public library or some other council-supported service. As the users are likely to be different people the politicians have to make unenviable choices. Their decisions probably rest on which group lobbies hardest.