Phil Prentice, Chief Officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, shares his thoughts on the importance of rail infrastructure and investment for the success and sustainability of towns.
Since taking over as STP’s Chief Officer 18 months ago I have travelled an estimated 45,000 miles. That's the equivalent of a 120 mile daily commute – from Eyemouth and Stranraer in the South to Stornoway and Aberdeen in the North, I reckon I’ve now seen the most of Scotland’s Towns… at least once! (And in case you are wondering, we class every place with 1,000 people or more as a town – there are 479 in Scotland and we have a data model for them all –www.usp.scot)
And most of these miles have been on the railway - it's a fascinating way to travel, particularly outside of the peak times. You relax in comfort from the elements, enjoy wi-if connectivity to ensure you can still be productive, and soak in some of the best scenery in the world on the way to some of the best towns in the world. It’s just as well I enjoy it as I spend on average 4 hours training it every day.
A modern day tartan Kerouac of trains!
Whatever your stance on railways and trains, privatised or nationalised, underinvested, good or bad, the truth is (IMHO) that the current franchise operator, (Abellio) has been a breath of fresh air. Trains are being modernised and electrified, stations are being built and upgraded, new lines and destinations are being created. The real difference though is in how the train is being viewed as a national economic asset – moving goods, people, data – linking people to jobs, driving economic prosperity through tourism. And doing it sustainably. Just look at what the new Borders railways has delivered to Galashiels and the South of Scotland. The doorstep to destination concept, fixing the link (between the station and the town), making the station nicer – the research shows that this makes folk stay longer, spend more and return again!
Whilst the early railway was primarily built to support industry, nowadays the rail plays a critical role in connecting people. Primarily Ayrshire and Inverclyde to Glasgow, the Lothians and Fife to Edinburgh. And then the long haul routes – connecting the central belt to Inverness, Aberdeen and the Highlands. The importance of the railway is significant, and in hindsight we would have resisted many of the Beeching cuts from the 60’s and 70’s.
We need a period of intense modernisation and investment and perhaps – more trams and city and regional growth infrastructure investment. Ultimately we may bring the ownership back into public hands, meantime I’m happy clocking up the miles.