22 April 2009

S3M-3883 High-speed Rail Services [Closing Speech]

Scottish Parliament

Wednesday 22 April 2009

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 14:30]
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High-speed Rail Services

Deputy Presiding Officer (Alasdair Morgan): The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-3883, in the name of Patrick Harvie, on behalf of the Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change Committee, on its inquiry into the potential benefits of high-speed rail services.

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Stewart Stevenson:

I thank members throughout the Parliament for a pretty clear affirmation that, despite some disagreements on details, we want high-speed rail to be taken forward. The project can be of fundamental benefit to Scotland and, as Alex Johnstone said, deliver key environmental benefits in the south-east of the UK. I am glad that Lord Adonis is an enthusiast for rail generally and is now in charge. Charlie Gordon is an old railwayman, but his thinking is nonetheless still fully engaged.

I invite members to consider the thread that has run through the debate: that travel by air is significantly faster than travel by rail. Actually, city centre to city centre, the difference is arguably only about one hour. The times are much closer than we imagine. I do not say that to dispute the three-hour tipping point, which is absolutely right. I once had occasion to leave a committee meeting in the Parliament at 12:10 for a 15:30 meeting in London. Heroic efforts got me door to door in two hours 45 minutes, but it included using a motorcycle between Heathrow and Whitehall, which took 32 minutes. I commend that for its excitement if not for its environmental friendliness. The point is that the times are closer than we sometimes think.

Equally, we do not want to talk down rail in relation to fares. It was disappointing to hear today about rail fares between Edinburgh and London going up by 11 per cent, although I understand that National Express fares in Scotland are not affected, which is relatively good news. If people are prepared to book as far in advance on the railway as they are generally prepared to do to get a good fare on the airlines, the difference in fare is not all that substantial. Rob Gibson's plea for simplification of the fare structure was a well-made point. Steps have been taken at UK level, but more can be done.

Alison McInnes said that parallel lines do not meet. I am sorry but, as a mathematician, I suggest that the member put her parallel lines on opposite sides of a Möbius strip and she will find that they actually do. That is one of those mathematical tricks that is always interesting to debate. Rob Gibson made a point about Sunday service breaks. I am slightly surprised that other members did not make that point, because one of the key challenges for Network Rail is to deliver a true seven-day service throughout Great Britain. I know that, north and south, the neighbouring Administrations are engaged fully with Network Rail on that.

I will compare and contrast the roles of the STPR and the NPF. The NPF is about planning, so it is appropriate to consider incorporating high-speed rail into it, to facilitate and ease the way for planning. The STPR is about the Scottish Government's spending plans, but high-speed rail is, in financial terms, the responsibility of the UK Government—I wish it were otherwise, but that is how it is.

It is interesting that British Waterways is a cross-border authority, which means that two ministers, north and south of the border, share responsibility for canals. It might be interesting in future to explore whether that would be a good model for railways. Adjacent Administrations can work well together. Dublin and Belfast—a sovereign Administration and a devolved Administration—have worked tremendously well to improve the railway connection between the two cities. There are good models for us to consider. We need to ensure that as development spreads out from London, as it is likely to do, there are benefits for Scotland. That is important, and we will push for them.

I wish that I had the flexibility that Jane Davidson, the Labour member of the Welsh Assembly Government who has responsibility for the environment, enjoys. She can go everywhere by rail because she does not always have to be back in the Assembly for votes. She even managed to go by rail from Cardiff to Poznań last year. The round trip took her four days. In parts of Europe the challenge remains substantial.

We hope to work on the Scottish aspects of HS2 at the turn of the year. We will work enthusiastically with colleagues in the south. I welcome the debate as a useful contribution, which will inform everyone who has a role to play in the matter.


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