Rail Expansion: Scotland Shows How It’s Done

5 January 2009 (Last Updated January 5th, 2009 18:30)

Scotland has been deciding its own transport policy since 1999 and its actions have put the rest of the UK to shame. Reopened railway lines, smart stations and a tramway for Edinburgh are all part of the vision, as Neil Pulling explains.

Rail Expansion: Scotland Shows How It’s Done

An independent transport policy for Scotland has led to vast improvements for the region's rail network while English neighbours over the border can only marvel at the speedy improvements. A tram for Edinburgh and a London link reducing the 400-mile journey to a mere two-and-a-half-hour trip now all seem within reach.

Passengers account for the majority of train movements over Scotland's 1,520 route miles (2,446km). Subject to UK franchising arrangements and with internal services designated a single franchise, the initial holder was National Express Group from 1997 to 2004.

Its successor is FirstGroup, widely branded as First ScotRail. Between 2006 and 2007 it carried 77 million passengers – a massive 45% increase over a decade previously. Despite this rise, the number is still well under half of the UK's largest single carrier, South West Trains.

The most intensive operations are in the lowland Central Belt, especially in the Strathclyde Passenger Transport Authority (SPTA) area centred on the largest city, Glasgow.

This area is also where the main concentration of the 23% of Scotland's railways that are electrified can be found. Elsewhere, Scotland's passenger operations are characterised by what the airline industry traditionally calls 'long thin routes'.

"It was anticipated that Transport Scotland's annual spending on public transport as a whole would reach the £1bn mark."

But with growing demand, the long routes between small communities are becoming much less thinly populated.

Billion-pound investment

Launched in January 2006 by the Scottish Executive (Scottish Government from 2007), Transport Scotland was constituted as a cross-mode agency working with private and public sector bodies, with one of the five directorates being Rail Delivery. A 20-year rail strategy was encapsulated in the 'Scotland's Railways' report published in December 2006. It was then anticipated that Transport Scotland's annual spending on public transport as a whole would reach the £1bn mark.

In association with Transport Scotland, infrastructure remains under UK national operator Network Rail. One of the projects in the planning stage before the constitutional changes was the Borders Railway Waverley Project which gained royal assent in July 2006.

Largely using alignment closed in 1969, the 35-mile (56km) line from Edinburgh Waverley to Galashiels/Tweedbank in the central Borders is to open with seven new stations, at an estimated cost of £295m and to be operational by late 2013. Scheduled for a half-hourly service and 55-minute end-to-end timings, the line will be a welcome alternative to road, most notably for Edinburgh commuters. Consistent with Transport Scotland's cross-mode influence and policy, bus services will be integrated with train timings.

"Edinburgh's light rail project will see the first UK use of trams from Spanish manufacturer CAF."

Central Belt projects include the completed Larkhall-Milngavie line and the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine line for passenger and freight which reopened in summer 2008. Glasgow Airport Rail Link (where Transport Scotland took over project control from SPT in 2008) is due to open in 2011 and the Airdrie-Bathgate scheme by the end of 2010. This 13-mile (21km) reconnection and substantial upgrading of what had effectively been two branches will add an extra Glasgow to Edinburgh double-track line which, like the less direct Carstairs route, will also be electrified.

All tracks using Edinburgh Waverley's western exit are being electrified with the standard 25kV ac system, which is indicative of Scotland's further divergence from prevailing UK rail policy elsewhere. This independence is also exhibited in the longer-term intention to electrify the principal Glasgow-Edinburgh passenger route via Falkirk.

Light and dark

Edinburgh is a survivor of the multitude of light rail systems which, after gaining approval, were then cancelled in the early 21st century, narrowly surviving in the Scottish Parliament prior to a go-ahead given in 2007. Projected to start revenue services in 2011, the first line is from Newhaven (Leith) to Edinburgh Airport, with growing hopes for completion of the loop across the north of the city. A project to provide a heavy rail link with Edinburgh Airport was suspended in September 2007 – the effect intended to be offset by a new rail/tram interchange at Gogar.

Edinburgh's light rail project will see the first UK use of trams from Spanish manufacturer CAF. At a nominal 40m, they will become the longest UK carriages and will be subject to a 30-year maintenance contract. A contract has been agreed to research the modernisation of Glasgow's centrally located subway, with plans existing for expansion.

Optimising rail use for freight is another of Transport Scotland's aims and is best exemplified by the priority given to incorporating better access to Longannet power station in the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine project.

"Aside from demand brought by new rail openings, projected increases indicate a need for more rolling stock."

Dominated by coal and intermodal traffic, Scotland's freight flows are mainly in the Glasgow and Ayrshire area, as well as south towards England via the West Coast and 'G&SW' lines – the latter having just undergone a redoubling project to increase capacity, which was completed in 2008.

To bring the north-east into mainstream intermodal operations, a £4m gauge project completed in November 2007 means that internationally standard-sized containers can pass between Elgin, Aberdeen and Mossend (Glasgow), Scotland's principal freight hub.

Fittings and furnishings

Multiple units dominate passenger workings with the Strathclyde area electric fleet which handles around two thirds of all the country's passenger journeys. First-generation units from the 1960s Glasgow electrification were replaced by a mix of classes dating from 1979 up to the latest type, the Alstom Class 334, which first entered revenue service in 2002.

Several variations are in First ScotRail's Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU) fleet, variously fitted for suburban and longer-distance routes, the most modern being the Bombardier Class 170. The main UK freight companies all have a Scottish presence with the diesel GM/EMD Class 66 the most widely used locomotive.

The equipping of the West Highland Line in 1989 as a cost-saving measure made Scotland one of the first regions of the UK to implement Radio Electronic Token Block signalling. Because of the direct relationship between signalling and line capacity this approach has gained significance across the board as demand has risen. This is best illustrated by the project to resignal Glasgow Central, the busiest Scottish station.

"The new styling for the old brand places great emphasis on Scottish identity by incorporating the Saltire flag."

Aside from demand brought by new rail openings, projected increases indicate a need for more rolling stock. The balance of motive power will be further shifting from diesel to electric as developments in the Central Belt are completed.

In July 2008 Transport Scotland ordered 38 Class 380 Desiro electric multiple units (three- and four-car units formed from 130 vehicles) from Siemens at a cost of around €300m. New procurements are unlikely to see displacement of the older stock as demand is likely to encourage cascading for more services and strengthened formations.

Down the track

Although detailed plans are yet to appear, the Scottish Parliament has a cross-party group to further the case for the Glasgow Crossrail scheme that would greatly improve north-east to south-west links across the Clyde and yield more change-free rail connections. Parliament is also considering the implications of a new high-speed rail link which could bring timings like 2 hours 35 minutes for London to Edinburgh and 3 hours for London to Glasgow.

Emblematic of Scotland ploughing a more divergent furrow from other UK rail operations was the new branding for trains and stations launched in September 2008 – 25 years after the ScotRail brand was first introduced under the nationalised British Rail.

The new styling for the old brand places great emphasis on Scottish identity by incorporating the Saltire flag. Equally, it allows for greater continuity in the event of a change of franchised operator, a situation some industry commentators would welcome elsewhere in the UK.