Category Archives: transport

The power of signs

IMG_1868 by Bobby Hidy, on Flickr.

One of the most ridiculed new powers proposed in the Smith Commission's report today is about road traffic signs::

66. Remaining powers to change speed limits will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Powers over all road traffic signs in Scotland will also be devolved.

However, if this really devolves everything to do with road signs to Scotland, it actually is much more significant than most people think.

Firstly, as anybody who has driven through continental Europe in a car knows, nothing signals that you're in a new country more than when the road signs change. Of course there are international standards these days that prevent them from becoming completely unrecognisable, but the layout, the font and the colours together provide a powerful subliminal message that tells you which country you're in. So if Scotland for instance changed the typeface from Transport (as used in Cyprus, Denmark, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Portugal and the rUK) to DIN 1451 (as used in Germany, the Czech Republic and Latvia) or SNV (as used in Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Luxembourg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Slovenia and Serbia), it would make a difference to drivers crossing the border -- as James Kelly put it, ‘nothing says "London rule" quite like that font.’ (See an overview of road sign typefaces here.) At the same time, Scotland could also swap the use of blue and green backgrounds to mirror the usage in Sweden, Finland, Italy and other countries.

Secondly, I presume metrification could be completed, too, using both the powers to change speed limits and the signage powers. All speed limits and distances could simply be given in kilometres instead of miles. This would make Scotland stand out very strongly as a modern, European country, compared to the rUK.

Finally, these new powers could also be used to introduce signs in Scots, not just in English and Gaelic. However, this would probably be best done as part of an overall strengthening of the support of Scotland's biggest minority language.

It's clear that if this new power is used in full, it might actually turn out to have been one of the most important proposals made by the Smith Commission.

Regional GDP and HS2

Regional GDP and high-speed rail.
Regional GDP and high-speed rail, based on a map from this article.
As far as I know, the calculations showing that London will benefit from HS2 and Scotland will lose out are based on the idea that improved infrastructure will lead to more business in the places that are now better connected, and as a consequence one will see a drop in business in those places that are now suffering from connectivity that is worse in relative terms.

In other words, if you want to make areas north of London more competitive compared to the UK capital, you improve infrastructure elsewhere, you don't simply link them up to London (because this will help the capital, too, which means the relative advantage of placing your business in London won't be reduced).

From a Scottish point of view, better infrastructure would be wonderful, but it's really not a high-speed railway to London that will make the difference.

If we look at a map of regional GDP, it's clear that it's the Highlands that need help, so direct trains from Inverness to the central belt and perhaps also to Aberdeen would do wonders. In fact, a Scottish high-speed railway (SHS on the map) connecting all of Scotland's cities would probably transform the Scottish economy. (Proper high-speed trains might not actually be necessary -- the physical distance from Glasgow to Inverness isn't that great, so a relatively straight track and trains driving 100mph would be a huge improvement to the status quo.)

Once SHS was in place, the poorest regions in the north of England could then potentially be connected to it (SHS-E on the map), which would create a lot of growth there, and importantly not just London-driven growth, which would help to stabilise the English economy.

However, Westminster aren't likely to ever invest in SHS -- their tendency to see everything from a London point of view is just too strong, and it's too expensive to finance through the ordinary block grant. A project like this is something that can realistically only be realised in an independent Scotland.

Denmark recently slapped an extra tax on North Sea oil extraction in order to pay for improvements to the railways. Perhaps something similar could be done here after independence.

The way forward for Scotland’s airports and railways

There's only about 60 km between Scotland's two largest cities, Glasgow and Edinburgh (counting from city boundary to city boundary along the motorway), yet they have separate airports and it takes 50 minutes to take a train from city centre to city centre.

Looking further afar, Inverness is only about 180 km north of Glasgow as the crow flies, or about 270 km by road, yet the fastest train is underway for almost 3½ hours.

I could give similar figures for travel to the other Scottish cities, such as Aberdeen and Dundee.

This is ridiculous! It's like all efforts go into providing good connexions to London, instead of tying Scotland closer together.

In an ideal world, I'd shut down Glasgow and Edinburgh airports and build a new one south of Falkirk (the exact location would of course have to depend on the topology). I'd then build some very straight rail tracks from Glasgow via the new airport to Edinburgh, so that the trains could achieve a decent speed (I'm imagining something like 15 minutes from either city centre to the airport, or about 30 minutes from Glasgow to Edinburgh).

Furthermore, I'd straighten out the tracks to at least Inverness and Aberdeen, add parallel tracks and electrify the whole lot, so that decent speeds could be achieved there, too. I'm not sure exactly what would be possible, but I reckon it should be possible to get the travel time from Inverness to Glasgow or Edinburgh down to under two hours, and hopefully close to one hour.

The effect would be that all Scottish cities would be within easy reach of each other, which would no doubt do wonders for the Scottish economy. It would also mean only one airport was needed for mainland Scotland, which would result in a big airport with lots of direct connexions, instead of just having small airports mainly sending passengers on to the larger hub airports such as Heathrow.

Besides, I'm sure a big infrastructure project such as this would be just what the doctor ordered against the recession…