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A high speed rail link between Scotland and the rest of the UK:  it sounds a business and political dream ticket.

But the plans unveiled yesterday extending the HS2 north from Birmingham to Manchester and Leeds may prove a liability for Scotland and marginalise Scottish business and commerce.

For all the urgent cross-party exhortations to boost capital spending, this infrastructure project par excellence may prove one of the most divisive proposals now facing the UK.  

It has already opened up divisions between the government and Conservative backbenchers from constituencies along the route who are hotly opposed to the project. It has divided economists over the mooted benefits. Far from providing wide economic benefits, some, citing evidence from countries with high speed rail systems, argue that the project will only intensify the magnetic pull of the capital. Others say £32 billion could be far better spent on an array of other, smaller transport projects that in aggregate would yield far greater benefit.

And the HS2 proposal presented yesterday may act to widen the economic distance between Scotland and principal cities in the rest of the UK, putting Scots firms at a disadvantage.

This point was well brought out in a statement yesterday from Scottish Chambers of Commerce chief Liz Cameron. She pointed out that whilst marginal benefits will accrue to Scotland in terms of slightly shorter journey times if the ‘Y’ network is completed on schedule in 2033, “the fact remains that the Department for Transport’s own figures show that central Edinburgh to central London journeys will still be quicker by air than by rail two decades from now.”


There is a more worrying point: improved connectivity benefits for English cities could lead to Scotland becoming “even more marginalised" in relative terms.

“By 2033, Manchester to London journey times could be reduced by 47 per cent, whereas Glasgow-London times would only fall by around 12 per cent, meaning that the benefits of High Speed Rail in the absence of a true UK network disproportionately favour English cities.” 

Thus, a £32 billion mega infrastructure project of business and political dreams, now being billed as “an engine for growth”, could see Scotland put at a disadvantage.

Scottish Transport Minister Keith Brown expressed pleasure yesterday that the Department for Transport's command paper recognises that Edinburgh and Glasgow currently have some of the most heavily used sections of the rail network in the UK “and that bringing high speed rail here would help to ease congestion on the network, enhance the effectiveness of the railways and improve the passenger experience, as well as benefitting both the north and south and increasing modal shift from air to rail thereby helping improve the environment."

But that’s not at all how Liz Cameron sees it.  “The UK government’s new HS2 command paper which deals with Scotland”, she says, “hints that a full High Speed Rail in the future is far from being a done deal.

“High Speed Rail has the potential to be transformational in terms of connectivity and the economic success which that brings, but current plans are leaving Scotland on the margins.”


The priority for Scotland must be a high speed rail link between Glasgow and Edinburgh – the journey now taking longer than it did in the 1970s.

And it is not business directly that would be the immediate beneficiary. Key winners are likely to be sporting, cultural and leisure activities as events in the cities become more accessible and can draw on a greater catchment and marketing area. Other transport projects, too, have a claim to urgent attention and policy commitment, particularly road and rail links to the north and west.

As rural England does battle with the Conservative government it returned, we need to press on with our own agenda.