The railways have a big part to play in reducing road congestion, lessening our dependence on fossil fuels and cutting greenhouse gas emissions from transport.
Personally, I have always regarded the train (a proper train that is, not a bus on rails) as by far the most civilised way to travel. So, for all these reasons, I am a strong supporter of the railways. I have campaigned for improvements to the rail network and train services for as long as I have been involved in politics.
About ten years ago, I became chairman of a group seeking to have the line between Elgin, Aberdeen and Mossend (in Lanarkshire) upgraded so that larger freight containers could reach the north-east by train. It was hard work and it took several years to prove feasibility and value for money, but in 2005 the Scottish Government agreed to fund the track alterations required. The work was completed in autumn 2007 and large, modern containers have been used to bring goods by rail to Aberdeen ever since.
The proposal to introduce a frequent service of local passenger trains between Stonehaven and Inverurie, with some new stations to boot, has fared less well. This idea has been dubbed 'Aberdeen Crossrail'. First put forward in the early 1990s (I can't even remember exactly when), progress so far suggests full realisation only on a geological timescale. I have lost count of the number of technical studies undertaken to forecast passenger numbers, examine options for timetabling and the location of new passing loops, and estimate costs.
A version of part of the Crossrail package did, finally, become a reality in December 2008 when the train service between Aberdeen and Inverurie was significantly improved. Passenger numbers at Inverurie station have risen by a quarter as a result. Another element of Crossrail has always been a new station at Kintore. For this, we are still waiting. This is despite substantial amounts of new housing being built in and around Kintore in recent years. For as long as I can remember, everyone elected (or seeking to be elected) to represent Kintore has declared their strong support for a new station to serve the town. At the 2007 council election it was my turn. With the introduction of proportional representation, Kintore was included along with the area I previously represented in the new East Garioch ward. I was one of five candidates seeking to become one of the three councillors for Kintore and the rest of the East Garioch ward.
In line with tradition, local opinion and my own political views, during the election I pledged support for a new station in Kintore. I said that if I was elected I would do all I could to get a station built as soon as possible. I didn't actually think it would take very long. The new SNP government had, after all, promised to do everything for everybody. Immediately. And whilst I did not believe there was any likelihood of most of the promises being kept, Kintore station was such an obvious choice for an early win for the new government. In the First Minister's constituency, cheap by the standards of transport projects, much of the technical work done - they were going to give this one the go-ahead pretty quickly. Except I was wrong. They didn't. And they still haven't. I have been writing fairly regularly to the transport minister, Stewart Stevenson MSP, for nearly three years now pressing for an unequivocal Scottish Government commitment to getting a station built.
In 2008, a petition in support of a new station, signed by over 1000 Kintore residents, was presented to Mr Stevenson. But that didn't persuade the minister either. Now, though, it looks as if the minister is preparing to give approval. Last October, Mr Stevenson said in parliament that Kintore station “looks like a pretty good option”. Of course, I immediately wrote yet another letter. My best guess is that there will be an announcement later this year that a station will be built at Kintore. That will be great - if it happens. But it won't alter the fact that it took an absurd amount of time for the decision to be taken. Nor are we anywhere near seeing the full Crossrail proposal implemented - even after almost twenty years. We have to do much, much better. It was obvious during the overall appraisal of the Crossrail proposals in 2007 that assumptions about demand were being made which could only have the effect of producing an underestimate of likely use. A very poor benefit:cost ratio for the scheme as a whole was the result.
In reality, experience shows new and better rail services tend to be well used. Witness Laurencekirk station, also in Aberdeenshire, which reopened just last year. Passenger numbers there are running at 80% above what had been forecast. We need a much more ambitious (and speedy) approach to improving rail services to effect the transfer of goods and passengers from more energy-intensive modes of transport. Bluntly, there is no sign we are going to get this from any of the four main political parties.