2007 - 2021

Trains, Planes and Automobiles

The Nissan  Leaf – one of the many new plug-in electric cars you won’t be driving next year


News that the proposed Forth Hovercraft link is about to collapse offers further evidence that this country has zero innovation around transport. We don’t know how to get about and we’re not taking climate change seriously.

Despite the setback, Stagecoach, who carried out the 2007 trial with funding from South East of Scotland Transport Partnership, claimed yesterday the hovercraft service was not dead in the water. A Stagecoach spokesman said it was still keen to be involved in providing bus links and infrastructure for a future service. I bet they were. The service – which logically should go from Kirkcaldy to Leith or Granton (to meet with the trams) instead has to go to Portobello, for people to then be ‘bussed’ by Stagecoach to Edinburgh (or maybe even Leith?).

The project has suffered from three fatal blows: partisan attacks by Mad Bad Baron Foulkes, a crippling mantra that private = good and public = bad in terms of transport policy, and an almost total lack of joined-up thinking at an institutional level of Scottish politics. It’s now dealt a final blow by the cloud-cuckoo-land proposal that we build a new road bridge with all that spare capital investment cash we have lying around.

Behind all this – and central to  this week and next’s horse trading around the Scottish Budget – is the idea of growth. We absolutely must be able to rattle up the A9 ‘for the sake of business’ – the SNP is castigated from left right and centre for not promoting more for a growth economy, then further castigated if it does. We all huddle around the failed idea of business development, entrepreneurialism and a growth economy. To talk against this agenda is to enter a taboo subject. The Sustainable Development Commission was eliminated for having the temerity to publish this report last year. The issue is neatly summarised by Hazel Henderson ‘The problem is of course that not only is economics bankrupt but it has always been nothing more than politics in disguise…economics is a form of brain damage.’

As the Scottish socialists internecine warfare looks set to continue to rage for years to come we need to salvage some of their best ideas from the flames of the bonfire of the vanities. For Tommy’s many failings we shouldn’t forget the part he and his party played in pioneering free school meals and legislation outlawing warrant sales. Another policy that we must save is that of free public transport. It’s the sort of simple idea that is the sort of the jolt to the system we require to shift us in huge numbers out of cars and on to rail, bus, and even the unmentionable T word .

It’s been only a few weeks since the whole parliament (Greens excluded) fully backed a brand spanking new Forth Road Bridge (glibly ignoring our empty pockets, trajectory towards £70 a fuel tank and obviously outdated car-dependency) at an estimated cost of £2-4 billion. But – hey – who ever expected politicians to think beyond the end of next week?

What about the train? Well ‘our’ high speed rail network ends at Birmingham. Tory-Liberal Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond inadvertantly spoke the truth when he told the Conservative conference last year: “We have committed to a high-speed rail network that will change the social and economic geography of Britain”.

But it’s not just our infrastructure disenfranchisement. It’s about the continued control of society by private business.

As Owen Jones has written:

“I think there’s a real opportunity to put alternatives to the market back on the agenda. That doesn’t mean a rewind to top-down nationalisation. There’s another alternative: democratic, social ownership (for want of a catchier name).

Consider a proposal from the RMT union for publicly run railways fit for the 21st century, written for left-wing economic think-tank the Left Economics Advisory Panel. The industry would be run by a board: a third of which would be elected by workers, and a third by passengers. The remaining third would be reserved for Government representatives.

Such a board would be forced to work together to find common solutions that would benefit those who worked on and used the railways, as well as keeping in mind the long-term interests of society as a whole. Issues like safety and rail prices would no longer be looked at through a prism of maximising profits.

You could apply the same principle to other industries: like gas or water. In both cases, the neo-liberal argument that competition would benefit the consumer lies in tatters. In all socially owned industries would be forced to defend the interests of consumers if they had representatives sitting at the table.

It’s an argument in favour of democracy, too. There is nothing democratic about free-market capitalism. We are ruled by economic despots who wield huge power over our lives, and yet they are in no way accountable to us.

The economic crisis has provoked a real questioning of neo-liberal assumptions, particular of the idea that the market should be allowed to rip.”

Or here’s another idea as put forward by the Centre for Scottish Public Policy in their ‘100 ideas for 100 days’ series.

“Scrap the commitment to build a ‘fourth’ road bridge and fund the Scottish end of High Speed Rail. In austere times tough choices have to be made. Promises made in time of growth have to be reviewed again due to the turbulent economic times.

It is our belief that HSR2 would have a significantly greater economic impact, that we suggest scrapping the commitment to build a new fourth road bridge (or in Government parlance, ” a replacement crossing”) and diverting £1bn to start the High Speed Rail Line from Scotland.”

Another great idea.

Behind all this there’s a sneaky feeling that we all are encouraged to resort to: “Maybe there’s some super technology just around the corner that will fix all this? We’ve never really found a problem that we couldn’t dig our way out of: illness, energy, food production, war. Technology solves them all, doesn’t it?”

Maybe electric cars will help out? Maybe we’ll all be zipping over the fifth Forth Bridge in electric cars cursing these dirge-like predictions by green nihilists?

Our old friend Phillip Hammond has said that he wants 2011 to be “remembered as the year the electric car took off” The (UK) govt has announced which cars will be available for it’s £43 million Plug-In Car grant. Wow that sounds alot. The grant of £5000 would offset the cost of the following models: the Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius Plug-In, Vauhall Ampera, Peugeot iOn, Smart FortwoElectric Drive, MitsubishiiMiEV and the Citreon CZero.

Here’s the problem (s):

  • The high performance Tesla Roadster, the only electric car that actualy meets the all the techical criteria for the grant, is not on the list. Dft said this was due to ‘an administrative error.’
  • The £5000 grant sounds good, but the cheapest car on the range is the Leaf which costs £28,350. Anyone got a spare £23 grand?
  • Of the nine eligible cars two are made in the UK
  • Out of two million cars sold in the UK last year only 55 were electric. Fifty-five!

This whole agenda is greenwash for a society still clinging to the growth elusion. In economic terns growth is seen as health. Not to grow is to be ‘stunted’. But in nature evetually you ‘grow uip’. You stop growing.

The letters pages of Scotland’s papers and the online forums may be jammed with the semi-organised dilletantes of the climate change denialist brigade, but people who work for – for example – Oxfam see the realities of climate change every day. People in the global south don’t have the luxuries of inventing sun-spots or bleating about wind turbines. The relatively easy changes we have to make NOW are essential and we in Scotland need to hold our politicians to account for their ongoing failure.

As Sarah Watson writes here about lobbying to get Scottish party leaders to commit to a Scottish International Adaptation Fund in their manifestos : “To make this happen, we need real commitment: from politicians, but also from ordinary people. What will it take?”

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  1. cynicalHighlander says:

    You`ll maybe listen to this and maybe do some rethinking on what needs to be done. The egg timer is running!

  2. Chris says:

    Cycling is also obviously important, for short journeys, and can do more than anything to cut the filth spewed into the air, as well as helping with health in other ways. Contrast your local streets with these streets in the Netherlands, where they’ve invested in proper infrastructure:


    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks for the film Chris. Your absolutely right – and it would require small investment to make our cities much more cycle-friendly

      1. drew grozier says:

        But the planning/ installation/ maintenance/cleaning involved requires some brain activity higher than that of a haggis hen for which modern Scots are not weel kent. Can we not divorce England and remarry the Dutch. Then let them run the country an let us get back tae the bevvy.

  3. Frank Martin says:


    It’s a bit early to say how long the fall out from the Sheridan saga will effect SSP. It definitely could be years, but it might not – a week’s a long time in politics, and all that jazz. The membership of Solidarity have yet to discuss what they’re plans are for the election. I’m not sure if there will be any stunning revelations, but we live in hope.

  4. bellacaledonia says:

    Thanks for the link Frank – we’ll add it to our blog list.

  5. R Bell says:

    I’ve experience of all the main forms of transport in Scotland, except perhaps the river barge and the motorbike! (Or helicopters and hot air balloons, but I don’t know if they count).

    In many parts of rural Scotland, people are forced into using cars. They are effectively being punished for this, by ever increasing fuel prices, most of which are government tax. Suffice to say that tax does not end up funding research into alternative fuel or methods of transport, so the mantras about pollution sound somewhat hollow. Rural Scotland is being punished, make no mistake, until we see taxes replaced with genuine government action.

    And as someone who has had a good few bikes in the past (last one stolen…), I can safely say that much of Scotland, including some parts of the big cities, is not great for biking, since it is hilly. Add to that the damp and windy weather, and I would question how relevant pedal bikes are to most people’s transport. At present, I would say biking is mainly a leisure activity, and also a kind of subculture. The Netherlands are mostly flat. Scotland mostly is not.

  6. Steve says:

    I absolutely agree with the urgency of providing good public transport and better planning policies, but let’s not pretend the hovercraft idea was any good. Rather than letting 100 flowers bloom, we need to try to hang on to what we’ve got, and not price people off the buses and the existing Fife Circle train service.

    High speed rail sounds attractive, but investing in the existing network bottlenecks and keeping fares affordable will almost certainly bring greater environmental and economic benefits.

    The Edinburgh tram will cost every man, woman and child in Scotland at least £100- we could have subsidised a lot of buses/cycle routes with that.

    We need creativity and vision, but we need intellectual rigour also.

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Thanks Steve – ‘ keeping fares affordable will almost certainly bring greater environmental and economic benefits’ it would but fares have just gone up again and we have some of the highest train fares in Europe. People are using trains in record numbers just becasue they have little option. The hovercraft may not have been perfect but it would have broken the log-jam of car dependency and set a precedent for using the Forth as a crossing. There was also on the table a plan for a Fife ferry service.

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