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Union Connectivity Review is not a plan for improving transport connectivity

Published 01 December 2021 by Transform Scotland

Our policy advisor Chris Day has prepared a commentary on the Union Connectivity Review final report. Chris writes:

“The Union Connectivity Review is not a plan for improving transport connectivity. It is, essentially, a proposal to set up a framework for examining plans to improve connectivity. As it is just over a week since the UK Government abandoned well-developed plans for railways across the North of England, we doubt we will ever see any on-the-ground outcomes from this Review.

“The only concrete proposal we’ve seen in the Union Connectivity Review is establishing ‘UKNET’. This looks like a replacement for the European Union’s Trans European Network. In other words a framework within which schemes are developed.

“Apart from that, there is little more than the PM’s ‘commitment to stronger transport connections across the UK’. This comes little over a week after the government abandoned plans for new railways across the north of England.

“The UK government ‘invites devolved administrations to work with’ it ‘to progress proposals’. This represents a belated recognition that transport is largely devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Sir Peter Hendy says ‘I wrote in March that devolution has been good for transport where delivery has been devolved’.”

The report summarises what’s needed for better UK transport connectivity. Those affecting Scotland are:

  • Investing in the West Coast Main Line north of Crewe to properly use HS2 and its faster journey times and capacity;
  • Assessing the East Coast rail and road corridor to determine appropriate investments;
  • Upgrading the A75 to improve freight and passenger connectivity with Northern Ireland;
  • Measures to improve domestic aviation connectivity; driving sustainable domestic aviation;
  • Securing better connectivity for freight across the UK with ports;
  • Maintaining high sustainability standards on UKNET.

Chris comments: “‘Maintaining high sustainability standards’ is a very poor fit with measures to improve domestic aviation connectivity. And ‘driving sustainable domestic aviation’ is, like the proposed Irish Sea Bridge, style over substance. I expect ‘sustainable domestic aviation’ to disappear under scrutiny as quickly as the bridge.”

Some further commentary from Chris on the Scottish specifics within the report:

  1. ‘Reduce rail journey times and increase rail capacity between Scotland and London, the Midlands and NW England by upgrading the West Coast Main Line north of Crewe and reviewing options for alternative northerly connections between HS2 and the West Coast Main Line’. Compare and contrast last week’s Integrated Rail Plan, which suggested the UCR would examine the Golborne link. Evidently we are due for a round of further studies on the best way to connect HS2 to the WCML in NW England.
  2. ‘Seek to work with the Scottish Government to develop an assessment of the East Coast road and rail transport corridor from North East England to South East Scotland, including improvements on the East Coast Main Line and the A1’. In other words, further consideration. Transform Scotland, in our evidence to the Review, spelled out how the focus of any improved links should be sustainable; improve the ECML by all means, but forget the ‘dual the A1’ sloganeering.
  3. ‘Offer funding to support the upgrade of the A75 to improve journeys between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.’ The A75 is entirely within Scotland, and therefore a matter for the Scottish Government. Of course a major issue is transporting freight, and our submission highlighted that this was perhaps more important on the WCML/M6 axis-Northern Ireland (including any fixed link!) than passenger travel. So, again, we repeat that connectivity to Stranraer/Cairnryan, whether via the A75 or A77 corridors, must focus on expanding rail freight; whether directly, or by a Channel Tunnel-type rail freight shuttle. Of course upgrading the Glasgow-Stranraer and rebuilding Carlisle-Stranraer railways would also benefit passengers. We note that the Review does call for improved connectivity to seaports across the UK by enhancing rail freight connections.

Finally, we note that it is disappointing that the UCR final report failed to acknowledge the evidence that Transform Scotland had submitted to the UCR’s call for evidence.