North needs rail links fit for 21st century

This article first appeared in the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald and other Scottish Provincial Press publications.

Last week while down in the central belt as part of my normal working week, I took the opportunity to nip along to Coatbridge and visit the Freightliner Rail Freight Terminal.

A single freight train can carry enough material to build 30 houses, and while it is good to see the likes of Tesco and Diageo utilising rail to carry goods to and from the north, many businesses are missing out on opportunities to switch from road to rail simply because the single track Highland Main Line simply does not have the capacity cope with any significant increase in freight traffic.

Those who regularly travel to the central belt by train will understand the potential for major disruption to journeys as a result of extremely limited capacity. While I am pleased that the Scottish Government has recently announced a modest £10 million investment to improve the Highland Main Line, I fear it will amount to little more than tinkering, rather than the serious improvements that are needed.

Time and time again we see major investment in trunk roads, with billions splashed on projects which continue to prioritise the motor car over all other forms of transport. The Government trumpets its city deal projects, which are all too often just glamorously titled road building schemes.

I cannot imagine a project that would be more transformative for the Highlands than the dualling of the Highland Main Line.

Every tonne transferred by rail rather than road cuts CO2 emissions by 76%. Dualling the Highland Main Line would be of huge benefit to the climate, and by removing a great number of HGVs, could take between 250 and 300 lorries a day off the A9, from the trunk road network it would make our roads safer and reduce the ever increasing repair bills. It ticks all the boxes.

Increasing capacity on the Highland Main Line would also offer exciting opportunities to greatly improve journey times between the central belt and the Highlands. I am confident this would be a move that would be widely welcomed, particularly by businesses who could engage with their counterparts in the central belt much more conveniently.

The tourism sector is of course vital to the economy of the Highlands and Islands, and ensuring that we have rail links fit for the 21st century would greatly improve the appeal, encouraging many more visitors to the north.

Further improvements to the Far North and West Highland lines would enhance this further of course. But as the main rail route to and from the Highlands, we simply can’t afford to continue waiting, we need to dual the Highland Main Line now!