Page last updated at 22:05 GMT, Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Scots in slow lane on rail upgrades

By David Miller
BBC Scotland environment correspondent

Spanish trains travel at far higher speeds than their British equivalents
Spanish trains travel at far higher speeds than their British equivalents

Governments and environmental campaigners say switching from the plane to the train will help cut CO2 emissions and tackle climate change.

Across Europe, new high-speed rail services are luring passengers away from the airlines. But it will be many years before Glasgow or Edinburgh benefit from high-speed rail. So why has Scotland found itself at the end of the line and the back of the queue?


Spain's newest high-speed rail service allows passengers to travel between Madrid and Barcelona in about two and a half hours.

That's a journey of 385 miles, roughly equivalent to the distance from Glasgow or Edinburgh to London. The big difference, of course, is that the Spanish trains travel at far higher speeds than their British equivalents.

A glance at the destination board in Madrid's Atocha station shows why Spain's high-speed rail network is now the envy of Europe. It is growing at a remarkable pace and is proving to be hugely popular with passengers.

In his office at the headquarters of the Spanish rail operator, RENFE, the organisation's director of quality and sustainable development, Juan Martín Cuesta, is trying hard to appear modest about that success.

New passengers

He says: "By 2010 we will have more than 10,000 kilometres of high-speed lines and trains travelling at speeds of up to 300 kilometres an hour.

"Between Madrid and Barcelona, which was the busiest air route in the world, RENFE has taken 50% of the market within a year and we are continuing to attract new passengers from the airlines."

UK Transport Secretary Lord Adonis is following developments in Spain with interest. A high-speed rail line between London and Scotland could help the Westminster government achieve big cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

He says: "If you can get the journey time between cities below three and a half hours, certainly under three hours, you get a huge transfer of traffic from the plane to the train."

The airlines question some of the environmental claims made by supporters of high speed rail. But the government is convinced that encouraging more passengers to switch from the runway to the railway will help cut CO2 emissions.

In the critical decade of the 1990s, which is when most European and Asian countries started building their high-speed lines, we went down the blind alley of privatisation
Lord Adonis
UK transport secretary

Transport analyst Christian Wolmar argues the environmental benefits of high-speed rail are not as clear cut as they first appear.

He tells me: "If you built a high-speed line, you would create a massive amount of CO2 during construction. You would have to carry out a very, very careful carbon audit before approving a high-speed line on the basis of environmental factors alone."

Of course, there are economic factors to consider too.

In Madrid, I speak to passengers waiting to board the train to Barcelona and I quickly realise the environmental benefits of rail travel are not the service's biggest selling point.

Instead, the travellers talk of shorter security queues, more room to move around and, of course, the shorter journey times.

Benefits all round. So why has Britain fallen so far behind countries such as Spain, France, Germany and Italy?

'Huge mistake'

Lord Adonis says: "In the critical decade of the 1990s, which is when most European and Asian countries started building their high-speed lines, we went down the blind alley of privatisation.

"The systematic destruction of British Rail was a huge mistake and one of the effects of it was to remove any serious agency which was engaged in long-term planning."

The UK government is awaiting a report on the feasibility of building a high-speed line from London, northwards through the heart of England and, potentially, into central Scotland.

But even if the project gets the go-ahead, it will be built in phases and it will be years before passengers travelling from Edinburgh or Glasgow to London will enjoy the benefits which Spanish rail travellers can already take for granted.

It will be a very long time indeed before anyone living north of the central belt can expect direct access to high-speed services.

That's if they ever arrive at all.

Read more from David Miller:

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