AS RAIL minister, I felt it important to build constructive relations with my counterpart in the Scottish government, the transport minister, Stewart Stevenson.
We agreed on a number of issues, particularly on the importance of a long-term commitment to a north-south high speed rail line. Neither of us wished to turn the issue into a political football, and neither of us ever did.
But if The Sunday Times is to be believed, the SNP – at Westminster, anyway – have turned their backs on “conventional” high-speed rail in favour of magnetic levitation technology (Maglev). But before the likes of SNP Tactical Voting get too excited, they should take a step back.
First of all, it is very unlikely that Angus MacNeil, the SNP MP for Na h-Eileanan an lar, speaks for the SNP’s transport minister, who has not, as far as I know, shown any enthusiasm for this particular technology. Secondly, all Angus has done is sign an Early Day Motion. Whoopee. And thirdly, despite SNP Tactical Voting claiming that MacNeil has worked out a deal with a future Tory government, it seems that this is based on the fact that the proposal is backed by “the Conservative policy group”, which, as far as I can tell is not the same thing as the Shadow Cabinet or the party itself.
We are more likely than not to get new high-speed railway lines in future. But it will not be based on Maglev technology.
For a start, high-speed lines can accommodate conventional trains if necessary, including freight, Maglev cannot. High-speed lines will feed directly into existing railway stations. Maglev won’t because new, bespoke stations will be required to accommodate the new tracks (although to be fair, one study has shown that you could extend Maglev lines into Haymarket in Edinburgh, but not a few hundred yards further into Waverley).
What of the safety concerns? When a Maglev train collided with another train in Germany two years ago, the passengers couldn’t evacuate the train by stepping down on to the side of the tracks – they had to be airlifted by helicopter because Maglev tracks are suspended in the air on concrete stilts.
If the Scottish government wish to pursue high-speed rail links connecting Scotland with the rest of the country, then as a unionist, I will offer every support. But if they choose to support expensive and impractical technologies such as Maglev, they will have shown that they are not serious about high-speed rail.