Scottish railway

Radical transformation of transport will have to form the bedrock of any meaningful response to the climate emergency. Transport is the single biggest source of net carbon emissions in Scotland and these emissions have increased since 1990 rather than gone down. This is frustrating not just because of the obvious environmental impact but because the solutions are so clearly within our grasp.

Publicly owned buses

Scotland, and the UK as a whole, has been woefully unambitious when it comes to transport policy for decades now. Thatcher era regulations essentially crippled local authorities looking to run their own bus services, preventing them from replicating the successful model of public ownership deployed in Edinburgh where services are affordable, reliable and popular

Thanks to Green pressure on the Scottish Government those rules were stripped away in the Transport Bill which was recently passed by Holyrood. This is a welcome first step towards ensuring communities are served by cheap, clean and effective bus services but it’s far from the end of the journey.

Disincentivising driving

This Bill also saw Green proposals for a workplace parking levy finally brought into law. Sadly, this measure was consistently misrepresented by its opponents all the way through the legislative process. The levy is a targeted policy which has the potential to vastly improve public transport in the council areas which choose to deploy it. The law recognises that the varying landscape and demography of Scotland’s local authorities can’t support a one-size-fits-all approach to transport. That’s why councils aren’t mandated to introduce the levy, the simply have the option to.

Crucially councils who decide to press ahead with a workplace parking levy will have to use the revenue raised to fund a local transport strategy. It’s a tested policy which has worked effectively in Nottingham. There congestion has fallen, along with emissions, while millions of pounds have been raised and subsequently reinvested in the city’s transport network. We don’t have the time to ignore demonstrably effective policies which make streets cleaner and lives better.

Publicly owned railways

Again, while this measure has enormous potential to develop and improve public transport it is only a part of the puzzle. On a national level we need to radically rethink our approach to rail. The first priority must be a programme of full renationalisation of our railways.

It’s a bitter irony that successive governments in this country have found the idea of renationalising railways utterly distasteful but have been more than happy to hand contracts to companies wholly owned by other nations as is the case with Abellio in Scotland. Other lines are run by private companies and the franchises operate in the interests of their shareholders rather than the public.

There’s a reason nationalised rail services remain common in other European countries, they work. Capitalist lies about the importance of the free market are brutally exposed on the railways. There is no alternative provider, so long-suffering rail users are faced with ever increasing fares, a substandard service and can do nothing about it. Trains are a public service and should be run as such.

Full renationalisation would ensure that the Government has the ability to keep fares low, improve integration with other modes of transport and reinvest funding directly into the service. We’d also look to expand the network, reopening abandoned lines and improving existing ones. The Highland Mainline for example is almost entirely single track which is totally insufficient for modern demands. This is the line that links the Highlands to the rest of Scotland and the UK, yet its capacity remains essentially the same as it was in the Victorian era. The line is already in use for freight, a far cleaner way of moving goods about the country than lorries, but if we want to encourage more companies to make use of it we need to make sure the infrastructure is reliable and resilient.

End the expansion of roads

Meanwhile the Scottish Government are investing £6bn on dualling the A9 and A96 and despite promising that every policy was up for review when the First Minister declared a climate emergency the messages on roads are still muddled. There is no suggestion of completely abandoning roads but in the face of a climate emergency the car can no longer be king, and consideration must be given to maintaining what we have rather than expanding the network at a cost of billions.

That’s as true for roads in towns and cities as it is for motorways. Active travel in Scotland is far behind where it should be. There are many reasons for this but not least among them is a lack of investment.

Getting serious about transport

Money for active travel in Scotland currently sits at around 2% of the total transport budget, we would increase this to 10%. The dominance of cars on Scottish roads makes our streets dirty and unsafe for both pedestrians and cyclists. This significant budget increase would allow greater investment in walking and cycling routes and help bring about a necessary step change in active travel. Carbon emissions are of course environmentally destructive, but they have an immediate impact on people’s health as well, with air pollution estimated to cause over 2,500 deaths in Scotland every year.

Often conservatives pretend that fighting back against the climate emergency, and the concomitant disasters which ecological collapse will bring, means sacrifice from ordinary people. They say environmentalists want to roll back modernity and impose a monastic life style on all of us. This is a lie.

While it would be madness to pretend that we aren’t facing a crisis it would also be unnecessarily fatalistic not to see the opportunities that exist in the way we respond. A greener economy will be better for everyone. Public transport will be cheaper and more efficient. Our streets will be cleaner and air less polluted. We will be all be safer and healthier. Fundamentally green policies are about making a better world for everyone. One that’s built to last. Given the mire that capitalist orthodoxy has placed us in its no surprise that getting to that point requires a radical overhaul of the way our country works.

John Finnie is a Member of the Scottish Parliament and is the Scottish Green Party’s transport spokesperson.

With a General Election on the horizon, Bright Green is publishing a series of articles from progressive party spokespeople on how their policies would transform the country. This article is part of that series – all articles can be found here.

Image credit: 96Tommy, Creative Commons