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Ken Houston

One advantage of writing for a business e-publication that could be described as “frank, fearless and free” is that you get to disagree with the editor. For this reason I have no hesitation in saying that Bill’s longstanding  campaign for a ‘bullet train’ service between Edinburgh and Glasgow is an idea that deserves…..well… be shot out of court.

While history has shown that economic growth is inexorably linked with improvements to transport this must reach a stage when the time taken to get from point A to point B reaches a level beyond which there is no discernable advantage.

It’s for this reason any finance reserved for a bullet train would be better spent in fine tuning the two ‘fast’ services already operating between our two major cities - improvements to infrastructure and maintenance  ensuring that the 15-minute headway between Waverley and Queen Street is never subject to interruption and extended later into the evening – along with more spacious rolling stock, so that passengers are no longer compelled to play ‘footsie’ with the stranger seated opposite.

Quite apart from the dubious advantages of a bullet train, another factor to be taken into account is that Scotland, for all its history of inventiveness, just doesn’t ‘do’ major public transport projects.

This was apparent as long ago as 1889 when the Caledonian Railway launched its ‘New Leith Lines’ project which was intended to exploit  the goods market emanating from the then booming Leith Docks. This traffic also made viable a new passenger service looping around north Edinburgh and so confident was the Caledonian that it built three stations in advance – at Ferry Road, Newhaven and Leith Walk West.

But the major part of the plan – an underground line beneath Princes Street - brought howls of outrage from the heritage lobby and the Town Council. Had the scheme been built then Edinburgh today may have boasted a metro system based on north and south suburban loops providing ‘figure of eight’ services with the Princes Street line at its backbone.

Several years later the Caledonian was more successful on its home patch of Glasgow where it built an underground line from Bridgeton in the east, beneath the city centre, to Stobcross in the west

As in Edinburgh, the Caley was motivated by securing goods traffic, this time between the Lanarkshire coalfield and the docks but this also justified the launch of passenger services. Part of the line survives today, electrified, and provides a link between suburban services north and south of the Clyde.

When one hears of examples like this it is usually a cue to refer to Glasgow as ‘can do’ and Edinburgh as ‘won’t do’. Unfortunately the former is also prone to scoring own goals on the transport front.

Although Glasgow emerged from World War Two with one of the largest and most efficient tramway systems in the world the corporation’s progressive transport manager, Eric Fitzpayne, saw that the writing was on the wall for street trams.

However rather than see them replaced wholesale by buses (as was starting to happen in the large English provincial cities) he produced an imaginative plan to substitute conventional double-deck trams with a continental-style metro using the city’s myriad abandoned or underused rail beds plus the central reservations of dual carriageways.

Crucially the plan involved relatively little new tunnelling, the most important cost factor in any metro project.  Shamefully, Fitzpayne received little or no support from his political masters, who seemed seduced by an alternative plan for revitalising the heavy suburban railway system through electrification.  The plan also faced opposition from the newly-created British Railways and senior civil servants at St Andrews House in Edinburgh.

For years the railways had been steadily losing business to Glasgow’s trams and buses and electrification would be payback time. As for the Scottish Office, it saw Fitzpayne’s metro as a threat to the recently-nationalised bus services which operated just beyond the city boundary. Once again, politics and vested interests came before what may have been best for the travelling public.


Unfortunately, Scotland’s fraught relationship with public transport projects is not confined to the ground. In the mid-1970’s Glasgow Corporation sold its airport to the British Airports Authority. Given that the BAA owned Heathrow it should hardly have come as a surprise – although to some it did – that Glasgow (like Edinburgh, also sold to the BAA) simply became a provincial spoke to the London hub.

In contrast, Manchester’s councillors doggedly refused to relinquish control of their municipal airport and set about developing international links, the result of which is apparent today. Given the larger catchment population it was inevitable that Manchester would attract more services than Glasgow but local ownership must have given it another distinctive advantage.

But if that wasn’t enough Glasgow and Edinburgh were further hampered by a screwball ruling that any transatlantic flights operating in and out of Scotland were required to use Prestwick Airport.

This led to the ludicrous situation whereby a fully-laden jet taking off from Glasgow was compelled to land at Prestwick a few  minutes later…..even when there were no passengers waiting to board.

Why the ‘Gateway Prestwick’ rule was introduced is lost in the mists of time but there is no doubt as to why it lasted so long – the fragile majority with which the Conservatives held the Ayr constituency, coupled with the fact that for a long time this was occupied by the Secretary of State for Scotland, George Younger.

So while Mrs Thatcher was tearing down restrictive practices in other parts of British industry, she ignored a highly anti-competitive practice which seriously damaged Scotland’s ability to trade with the outside world.

This nonsense was only ended by the privatisation and deregulation of the airport sector by which time, of course, Manchester (and some other English airports) had stolen a march on their Scottish rivals.

Despite this there are still some Scots (not all of them Nationalist either) who put Scotland’s relative lack of international air services down to some dastardly English plot when in fact most of the harm has been self inflicted. Indeed the strongest supporters of ending the Prestwick monopoly were the American-based North-west Airlines and Sir Michael Bishop, English-born chairman of British Midland.

When North-west gave notice of launching a non–stop service between Glasgow and New York (without stopping at Prestwick) one of the objectors was the BAA…..Glasgow’s owner.  As a popular columnist in a right-wing paper based south of the Border might say: “You couldn’t make it up.”

With this botched history of public transport it now seems, in retrospect, that the Edinburgh trams project was an accident waiting to happen. As for the Borders railway project, the fact that the proposed line goes nowhere near Peebles, the most popular commuter town in the region, says it all.

Finally, there is another – more abstract – reason for not bringing the centres of Edinburgh and Glasgow within 30 minutes of one another via a bullet train.  I believe most Scots rather like the fact that our two major cities are so different in character and physical make-up despite being just 45 miles apart. Bringing them closer would threaten that difference and could lead to the creation of ‘Greater Glasburgh’ stretching from Helensburgh in the west to Longniddry in the east.

I doubt if such a conurbation would be a desirable outcome, no matter how easily traversable.

You can contact Ken at  or  [email protected]