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Scottish Parliament Speech: High-speed Rail Services (April 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I thank the committee for its encouraging report. I am also pleased with the atmosphere of general agreement during the debate this afternoon. I declare an interest as the president of the Scottish Association of Public Transport. My interest in the subject goes way back to the 1960s when Barbara Castle - as she informs us in her memoirs - on being appointed Minister of Transport, was approached by Harold Wilson's Minister of Technology, Frank Cousins, who wanted to tear up the entire railway system in favour of buses and lorries driven by his union members.

Since then, there has been a revolution in railway technology and control, and national survival and economic development in the present crisis are roughly proportionate to the sophistication of countries' railway systems. Let us take, for example, Japan, without which we would not have had our cyber world - someone has to build the gadgets, computers and systems of data retrieval. Japan's high-technology breakthrough followed the first Shinkansen lines, which were planned more than 50 years ago. We can, therefore, see the value of transport improvement as what the Victorians called social saving - it reduces costs and expands the resources that can be devoted to industrial and social modernisation. That is even more pressing now because we are already within sight of the ominous future of peak oil. Henry Ford could, quite soon, become history whether he would have liked it or not.

There is a direct way forward. It is an expensive one, but it must be taken. How can we accelerate progress without accelerating the cost? The critical time for Scotland's renewables future will come very soon, but the high-speed railway lines might not be here until the middle of the 2020s. By that time, I will be around 82, so I have a personal interest in wanting to see all of this turn up a bit earlier.

Certain preliminary things must be done. We have to create a dedicated freight network to take standard continental wagons, and we have to do so soon so that we can quickly accommodate renewable energy traffic and diversionary routes. Why not create a spinal freight line running up the middle of Britain and exiting via the Waverley line to Edinburgh?

Secondly, we must reduce the pinch points on the existing system, provide for a viable, variable-speed railway with non-stop or selective-stop trains that can, if necessary, bypass areas of gridlock such as York, Newcastle, Durham, Crewe and Preston. We have to get rid of the last of the level crossings on the east coast line. We have to install flyover junctions and centralised signalling. We might need to get special powers to do that, but we should strike while property is relatively cheap and lawyers, for once, are off their perches.

We must introduce - at least pro tem - overnight sleeper services from central Scotland to Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. Such services were foreseen in 1993, but John Major flogged the trains to the Canadians.

Finally, we must integrate our arterial routes with the European dimension. We are entering an age of barter, in which even The Economist rejects the markets as a means of determining transport priorities. Scotland has energy to sell, and we need technology and training. We know who can deliver, and I am afraid that, these days, it is Paris, Berlin, Berne or Stockholm, not London. However, we can use our energy advantage to give real weight to the nations of the British islands, organised confederally.

We stand before that bleakest of summits: peak oil. Car companies are failing like falling leaves, and we wait for the airlines to join them. We have a chance of doing deals and getting our own manufacturing, but only with the right infrastructure. In the longer term, that means that we will need dedicated high-speed lines, but there is still quite a lot that we can do with the system that we have. If we do not do so, we will come to resemble the fine portrayal of decadence that we find in Giuseppe di Lampedusa's portrait of Sicily in The Leopard, as we, too, will be "looking at the modern age like an ancient in a wheelchair being propelled round the Crystal Palace".

We have what it takes to get out of the wheelchair and into a proper, fast, cheap, reliable train.

 
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