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A Bridge Not Far Enough (August 2007)

This article was first published on The Guardian's Comment is Free

Scotland - and the rest of the UK too - will need a solid public works strategy as the fairy gold of Brown's boom vanishes.

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The Forth road bridge is falling down. The rail bridge seems covered with sticking plaster. It takes two-and-a-half hours to get from Edinburgh to Aberdeen by train, as in the days of steam. Never mind, as you chug through the rusting girders you can (for the coming nine years) look west and see Gordon's Giants - Airstrips Two and Three - building at Rosyth.

The 62,000 ton aircraft-carriers will cost four billion, and God knows what will be blown on Trident Two. Neo-imperial Viagra costs.

Think about this. In 1890, when the rail bridge opened, Baden-Württemberg's population was the same as Scotland's. It's now more than double, thanks to Europe's strongest regional economy. There's an express railway from Stuttgart to Mannheim, and a swish 200-mph InterCityExpresses will shortly reach Basle, Paris and Munich. Provincial Tübingen (size of Perth) has a Stuttgart train every 15 minutes and 23 bus routes, new suburban railways and a new Green mayor elected to build a "Stadtbahn" connecting the regional line to housing scheme, university campus and hospitals.

Tübingen has 80,000 people, Edinburgh around half a million: a possible European metropolis, but with a minimal suburban railway, served by Scotland's buses, which lost 18% of their traffic in 1993-2003. While European states from Austria to Portugal are building high-speed lines we hum an' haw about maybe a high-speed line to Glasgow in a decade or so, and when Gordon's aircraft carriers are finished, who knows, maybe a high-speed line to London.

Something much bolder is needed.

Scotland lacks a strong small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) sector. What it has got reflects the country's technological retreat: it sells cars and pours tar. in a very few years peak oil will be on us, and mass motoring will end. The Germans and Swiss know this, with up to four times our use of public transport. An integrated system of high-speed lines and regional rapid transit will give us just a chance of catching up with Europe. The cost of links across the central belt and to Aberdeen and Inverness? At the £19 million a mile of France's new TGV-Est - about five billions.

How much do we spend annually on motoring? Ten billions.

Individual automobility is essential for distinct groups, such as carers, delivery people, mobile workers like engineers, country-dwellers. Newbuild families in East Edinburgh currently need two cars, given bad town planning, remote schools and shops. But this is last century stuff, with very little in its tank. Regional Europe saves on transport by privileging the efficient public sector and investing the savings in cutting-edge manufacture: renewables, environmental engineering, biotech. Scotland hirples along in the wake of exploded American orthodoxies. Edinburgh has been out of the planning headlines for a long time. Newcastle has not: it's three hours by train from London and has a smooth, effective Metro system.

Scotland's problem is partly technical and partly administrative. It comprises the overstrain unchecked road traffic has inflicted on inadequate infrastructure, as with the Forth road bridge, the neglect of forward planning by Gordon Brown, the minor Scots Labour MPs who have "passed the parcel" at the UK transport ministry, and the inadequacies of existing public transport. Edinburgh-Glasgow railcars haven't a third of the capacity on any German provincial line. Bus-rail co-ordination? Dream on.

But the Forth bridge crisis may provide a way forward. The success of July's Portobello-Kirkcaldy hovercraft trial (9,000 were expected for the trial week, 16,000 were in fact carried) shows the appetite for innovation. The Forth Tunnel Action Group's scheme for an immersed tube tunnel, carrying, besides four or six road lanes, tracks for TGV-type high speed trains - which these days follow motorway contours - offers the possibility of integrating all the major Scottish conurbations with high-speed rail lines: not just between Edinburgh and Glasgow, but reaching the eastern cities and the Moray Firth. From a hub north of Rosyth a new line could run across Fife to Dundee, cutting times to Aberdeen by half. A Perth-Inverness motorway plus express rail plus underground high-voltage connector could plug-in a new northern metropolis.

A German six-car InterCityExpress train costs £15 million - a huge sum. But one which makes sense when it's travelling fast all day long.

The ForthTAG project is a far-sighted scheme devised by John Carson, formerly maintenance director of Network Rail, on the precedent of the Oresund crossing between Denmark and Sweden and the Bosporus crossing at Istanbul, joining the European and Asian rail systems. It is comparatively low technology, using 200-metre concrete modules which would be constructed at Rosyth (by local labour) and floated into place. This has already been done on a smaller scale in the Conwy and Medway estuaries. It demands priority over a suspension bridge which will be too costly (almost wholly foreign-built) too inadequate (with no rail capacity) and too late. But according to Transport Scotland the bridge is what we're going to get.

Transport Scotland is an apprentice quango, set up in 2006 to sort out several rather random transport schemes by the former First Minister, Jack McConnell. But such operations take four or five years to bed down, and in Broonland the broker's men are already taking over. The Spanish run our airports, the French control London's electricity, at the end of June Deutsche Bahn, the German state railway, started running most of our rail freight. No-one noticed, though this was only weeks before Brown's privatisation scheme for the London underground went noisily down the tube. It's time Scotland bypassed London and started dealing directly with the people who know the business.

In 1924 the infant Irish Free State, only weeks after civil war, sized up the European industrial scene and got the German Siemens-Schuckert firm to build the Shannon power scheme, one of the biggest in Europe: in one move electrifying the country. The government of Scotland requires such allies, and as striking an investment master-stroke. The UK, too, will need a solid public works strategy as the fairy gold of the Broonite property boom vanishes. You know it makes sense.

 
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