Scotland: stuck on the UK’s neglected branch line

While the media’s focus was on the twin circuses of what in Scotland proved to be the platinum jubilee meh yawnfest and the Conservative attempt to unseat the Prime Law Breaker, and despite the constant British nationalist cant about how Scotland is a vital and integral part of this so called Precious Union ( © Theresa May), the British Government was quietly getting on with trashing anything to improve Scotland’s links to the rest of the UK that a) cost it money, and b) don’t actually directly undermine the devolution settlement and the powers of the Scottish Parliament. If it costs money and doesn’t bring Scotland more directly under the control of the Conservatives at Westminster the British Government isn’t really interested, which ought to tell you all you need to know about the true attitude of the British Government towards Scotland.

As Conservative MPs prepared to vote on whether they have confidence in Johnson’s leadership the news was quietly slipped out that a vital part of the new High Speed Rail (HS2) was to be axed. The £3 billion 13 mile long Golborne Link in Greater Manchester will be removed from the HS2 Phase 2b Bill despite being included in the Integrated Rail Plan which was announced to great fanfare in march this year. The link would have left the high-speed line between Crewe and Manchester, and then cut through Trafford before joining the West Coast Main Line to the south of Wigan. The new Golborne line would have been a vital link, one needed to join the existing West Coast Main line, one of the two key rail arteries connecting Scotland with England with the new HS2 line to the English Midlands and on to London. It was touted as the initial stage in the extension of dedicated high speed rail lines into Scotland. The Eastern spur of HS2 which would have run to Leeds was axed last November in the government’s integrated rail plan.

However the Golborne Link would have cut through the Altrincham and Sale West constituency of 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady, who was overseeing the no-confidence ballot as the announcement was made on Monday. Brady and other Conservative MPs in the region have long campaigned for the plans to be scrapped and for the Government to consider alternative routes. It came out earlier this year that the Conservative transport secretary, Grant Shapps, had given Brady “verbal assurances” that the Government would axe the plans for the link would be scrapped. The link would have allowed high-speed trains on the London-Manchester HS2 line to connect to the west coast mainline just south of Wigan, which would have created more capacity and cut journey times to Glasgow. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Johnson has prioritised the need to pander to Conservative back bench MPs over improving transport links between Scotland and England.

A spokesperson for the Railway Industry Association, the Rail Freight Group and the High Speed Rail Group told the Guardian newspaper that the decision was hugely disappointing and that without the connection between the West Coast Main Line and HS2, “a bottleneck will be created north of Crewe on the west coast mainline, which in turn will negatively impact outcomes for passengers, decarbonisation and levelling up.”

In the UK the construction of new railway infrastructure remains the responsibility of Network Rail, which is an “arm’s length” public body of the UK Department for Transport. The UK has a woeful record when it comes to railway investment and development. The UK languishes near the bottom of the European league table when it comes to high speed rail. Spain has 4,327 km, (2,689 miles) of dedicated high speed lines in operation with another 1378 km (836 miles) planned or under construction, the UK has a mere 113 km (70 miles) of dedicated high speed lines with just the 220 km (237 miles) HS2 planned or under construction, all of which are in the South or Midlands of England. The UK has an additional 1874 Km (1165 miles) of upgraded lines which permit trains to run at maximum speeds of 120 mph. Dedicated high speed rail lines allow trains to run at much higher maximum speeds.

What Scotland does get from successive British governments are a lot of grandiose promises which never come to fruition. Johnson’s fantasy plans for a fixed link between Scotland and Ireland spring to mind. When the Channel Tunnel was being built in the 1980s we were assured that this massive investment in transport infrastructure in the South East of England would benefit Scotland too as within a few years of it opening we would see direct train services linking Glasgow and Edinburgh with Paris, Brussels, and other European cities. We were promised sleeper services that would whisk Scottish travellers straight to Paris. The original proposals included direct services to Paris and Brussels not just from London, but also from Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, York, Newcastle, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. seven trains were even obtained for these routes but never entered service.

28 years on from the opening of the tunnel, rail travellers from Scotland wishing to reach European destinations still have to travel to Euston or Kings Cross and then transfer to the London terminal of the cross channel railway service in order to continue their journey. There are still no plans for direct rail services from Scotland to Europe even though it is technically possible for trains to get to the channel tunnel line from Scotland without a stop in London. This is because of the explosive growth in budget airlines since the opening of the tunnel but also allegedly because of Home Office objections to the proposed passport checking facilities in existing mainline train stations and the difficulties in ensuring that international trains from these stations have dedicated platforms which are inaccessible to domestic passengers. In London, before the opening of the Eurostar terminus at St Pancras, international trains departed and arrived at a newly built section of London Waterloo which was isolated from the existing platforms.

HS2 minister Andrew Stephenson, who announced the news 30 minutes before the outcome of the confidence vote in Boris Johnson,promised that the British Government will explore alternatives for how high speed trains can reach Scotland. We can put that promise on the shelf along with the direct international services from Scotland to Europe and the Scottish-Irish fixed link.

Thanks to the cancellation of the Golborne link, trains from Scotland will be stuck on the slow track. It’s a fitting metaphor for Scotland’s place within the UK – at the end of a neglected branch line, underfunded, ignored, and deprioritised in order to pander to Conservative MPs.

I will be taking a couple of days off from the blog as I need to concentrate on sorting out the paperwork needed to renew my husband’s visa so that he can remain in Scotland. It’s an expensive and time consuming business. Although we have been legally married for almost four years, we have to prove that we have been cohabiting since he arrived in the UK to live.  It is vital that we get this sorted out and that it goes smoothly as I now depend on him for help with many daily living tasks and mobility and cannot manage without him.  However he cannot apply for Carer’s Allowance as his visa prohibits recourse to public funds. 

We also have to pay a £1560 NHS supplement to the Home Office on top of the already expensive visa fees despite the fact that for the past two years he has been employed by a UK subsidiary of his American employer and has been paying UK tax and National Insurance. I hope that one of the first acts of an independent Scotland will be to change the cruel and unjust immigration policies which make it so difficult and expensive for those of us with foreign spouses to have a home life in Scotland with our loved ones.

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