Thursday, 10 December 2015

East to west, Scotland's transport system needs a reboot

For today's Daily Record

AS a totem of a nation at a standstill, the empty decks of the Forth Road Bridge can only be matched by that list of delayed and cancelled flights to and from the islands of Scotland.

The east coast has suddenly discovered, as the west coast islands already have, how failing transport links quickly become an economic stranglehold.

The closure of the Forth Road Bridge now looks as inevitable as the rusting stanchion on which the excuses hang.

There was the populist abolition of the £1 bridge tolls, which meant £12 million had to be found from somewhere as the maintenance list grew.

A new bridge was commissioned, an obvious step, because the current one was already beyond the expected lifespan.

There were the engineers’ warnings that more maintenance was needed, and somewhere in the middle of this Nicola Sturgeon had a spell as cabinet secretary for infrastructure.

With all ministerial eyes distracted by their role in the nation’s destiny, tenders were drawn up and dropped amid budget cuts. Trying to cross the river to a nationalist Jordan, it looks like the SNP government neglected the country’s basic infrastructure.

In an ironic twist for an avowedly left-of-centre government privatisation saw the bridge authority cease to exist.

This privatisation agenda runs like a stain across the whole transport brief. Who is pushing it?

On the west coast, Transport Minister Derek Mackay is hawking Caledonian MacBrayne to private sector buccaneers in preparation for the next transport fiasco.

On the east coast, he has to take the brunt of motorists’ anger over the bridge closure.

Being a Minister isn’t such fun when things go wrong. Mackay strains every political sinew to achieve the look of an underweight Atlas, mythically holding up the globe all on his own.

He is left defending the past while firefighting the present. With no sign of back-up you have to worry about his own long-term structural integrity.

There are calls for an investigation into what went wrong, who knew what when.

Engineers, professionals who can be relied on not just to read what is written on the tin but test the contents too, gave ample warning of defects. Ah, but not the exact defects that emerged last week, respond the government, though that tune is whistling like the wind in a cable stay.

In a Scotland of two truths, empirical evidence versus political certitude, I doubt the worth of any inquiry.

An investigation would not move a single vehicle across the crippled Forth crossing.
For my tuppence, all that political energy would be better spent turning a crisis into an opportunity.

The bridge collapse, if it has done anything, has exposed the glaring inadequacy of Scotland’s public transport system.

Yes, Scotrail have pulled in extra carriages so Scottish commuters can get the sardine tin experience of the crowded south-east, minus the property prices and the milder weather.

There are expanded bus services, a sudden interest in car-sharing schemes and forlorn demands for featherweight cyclists to be allowed to zoom across the Forth (of course they should be).

So, if there has to be an inquiry it should be into the massive rethink Scotland needs to move dormitory commuters permanently onto public transport and off the roads.

Out road addiction shuts our eyes and ears, though not our lungs, to the carmaggedon of pollution and climate change.

Labour, in a search for 21st century principles, should be less consumerist, more conservationist and take the lead, especially if the Greens in Scotland remain a client state of the big oil party.

Just as in health and in education, it should be possible for a nation of five million to devise public transport policies that match the needs of the country. Big task, no easy answers, but put the engineers on the job.

That would require a bit of a political cease-fire to take place, a bit of bridgebuilding if you like. The Forth Road replacement might be falling into the water before we get that.

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