23 February 2021

S5M-24139 Investing in Scotland’s Railways

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald): The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-24139, in the name of John Finnie, on investing in Scotland’s railways. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament believes that investing in expanding, upgrading and decarbonising the rail network could play an important role in Scotland’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, creating jobs and reducing emissions from other forms of transport; welcomes the growing debate around future investment plans for rail, including the proposals set out in the Rail for All report; notes the view that upgrading and electrifying the Highland Main Line in particular could be of strategic importance, given its importance to Highland communities; understands that transport freight by rail to the Highlands could make a significant contribution to reducing emissions and relieving congestion on roads, and notes calls for the rapid decarbonisation of Scotland’s rail network in line with the country’s climate targets.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests in relation to my being honorary president of the Scottish Association for Public Transport and honorary vice-president of Railfuture UK. I thank John Finnie for the opportunity to discuss railways—in particular, how they might be part of the post-Covid world.

John Finnie mentioned Mr Spaven, and I have his wonderful book “The Railway Atlas of Scotland”, which presents a historical view of the railways of Scotland. My wife gave it to me as a Christmas present some years ago. It is an excellent book, and I commend it to all members.

The railway is, without question, the most comfortable way to travel. When I compare my driving from home to Parliament with, alternatively, making the journey using a train for all but my 15 miles to the station, I see that it costs half as much to use the train. More to the point, it is substantially more environmentally friendly, and under Government plans it will become even more so. The steam trains on which I travelled in the 1950s—I remember, in particular, a trip from Benderloch to Oban in 1956 to attend hospital after getting sunstroke—were fascinating. They were noisy and aromatic, with all the mechanical gubbins reciprocating in full view, as well as engaging to the eye, but environmentally friendly they most certainly were not, through burning coal and emitting vast amounts of smoke and particulates.

Today’s trains are faster, smoother and quieter, and they are increasingly powered by renewable energy. The refreshments from the on-board trolley, on a longer journey, are tastier and use more locally sourced ingredients. The overnight sleeper is the only way to travel south, if travel to the south is something that you must do.

I am old enough to remember when the Highland main line was dualled—at least, I am fairly certain that it used to be dualled all the way down to the central belt. We live with many of the short-sighted decisions that were made in the 1960s. We all remember the Beeching report, but focusing on that element alone would represent an unfair description of what actually happened. Beeching was paid a considerable amount to implement a policy decision that emanated from the desk of the then UK Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples. He was the managing director of Marples Ridgway—a road construction firm with substantial interests in building motorways. It might tell us all that we need to know about his motivations and actions to remember that he ended up fleeing the House of Lords to Monaco to escape prosecution for tax fraud. We should perhaps remember that inglorious period in our railway history as the “Marples Catastrophe”.

We now have the opportunity to improve the railways that we have and to extend their reach. In my part of the country, it is time to look at taking the railway back to Ellon and then to the biggest non-railway towns—Peterhead, with a population of 19,000, and Fraserburgh, with a population of 15,000, both of which are in my constituency.

My favourite mode of transport is the railway. It makes economic, environmental and energy sense, and I have happy memories of travelling on bits of the network that no longer exist. Brought up in Cupar, I used to choose to go the long way round to Dundee to the swimming baths, via Tentsmuir, Tayport, Newport and Wormit. That line is no longer there, but perhaps it might return in the future.

I once again thank Mr Finnie, and I thank the Government for its support of our railways. I also thank you, Presiding Officer, for calling me to speak this evening.


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