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Scottish Parliament Speech: Glasgow's Subway (June 2010)

See this speech in context on They Work For You

Let me first declare an interest as president of the Scottish Association for Public Transport, and let me thank Pauline McNeill for lodging the motion. I want to hear something for another rather unknown Scottish inventor. Who here has heard of Andrew Hallidie, who lived from 1836 to 1900? He was from a Dumfriesshire family who settled in the United States, and he pioneered steel wire rope.

Not only that, he installed the cable haulage on probably the most famous trams in the world: the ones that go up and down the hills in San Francisco. Under his patent, the Glasgow subway was started in 1896. The technology was supposed to be used on the first London tube lines, but London went for electric traction from the beginning. London therefore had the first electric tube lines; Glasgow did not follow until the 1930s.

Unfortunately - this must be acknowledged - the transatlantic importations, which at one level gave us the Glasgow subway, must be seen against another example. Almost the first electric urban railway in Britain was the Liverpool overhead railway, which was started in 1890 and was electric hauled from the start. With the changes in the docks, it fell out of use and was completely demolished and scrapped in 1956. That could so easily have been the fate of the Glasgow system, but the fact that it is underground means that the remarkable coaches were preserved, almost like dinosaur eggs, right up until they were modernised in the 1970s.


Of course, the subway has an unfortunate nickname - the clockwork orange. Anyone who has seen the tremendously brutal film of that name will not warm to that description. We should remember that undergrounds can be closed. There lies under the centre of London the once very useful post office electric railway, which has not seen a train for the past four years or so, although it is still preserved, like a sort of engineering sleeping beauty.

When Glasgow launched its motorway programme in the 1960s, many of the communities that depended on the subway were banished throughout the west of Scotland, as Gil Paterson said. Further, the high rises, which would have fed down to the subway, were a system of building that did not survive very long.

That leaves us in an awkward position, because we have just seen another Scottish invention, deep-sea drilling by positioning, run BP into terrible problems in the Gulf of Mexico. Although the technology enabled people to drill at depths of 1.5km under the sea, no one had a plan B for what to do with something went wrong. That is an illustration of how our desperate desire for oil is going to land us quite literally in deeper and deeper water.

The price of oil at the moment is $77 a barrel. It is likely that, within 10 years, it will be more than $200. That means that we ought to take advantage of the sort of low-carbon technology that we already have in place in, for example, the Glasgow underground.

I do not think that I can comment about what Bill Aitken said about privatisation. However, I point out that it does not seem to have been terribly successful in London, where all the privatised public transport is now back in public ownership. It is important that we take action to retain the valuable utility that we are discussing tonight.

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