You’ll forgive me if I don’t get all teary-eyed over the prospect of part of the Caledonian sleeper getting the chop or overly-excited at the thought of a £50 million bung to save its fate from that nice man Mr Osborne.
As a lowlander, I grew up with the Paddy, the sleeper train from Stranraer to London which went as far north as Kilmarnock before heading southwards. We used it a lot, like many lowland locals and folk travelling to and from Northern Ireland. But they did for it a long time ago.
And frankly, I’ve had neither the time nor inclination to use the overnight train from Edinburgh or Glasgow to London.
I can see – sort of – why some of those up North are baulking at the proposal in the now-notorious Transport Scotland consultation paper on the future of rail travel to end the Highland part of the sleeper service. But it is only one option, and the paper does make the point that the service could be made more attractive and financially sustainable by investment in the rolling stock. But I cannot get worked up about it.
For starters, who uses it? How many use it? Couldn’t folk transfer onto an early morning service to the Highlands from Glasgow and Edinburgh that would benefit more potential passengers, given the time the Sleeper rolls into our two major cities and the fact that no one can actually board the Sleeper from Scotland?
And whisper it, isn’t there a better use for our money in times of scarcity?
Which is why I’m less than impressed at George Osborne’s little ruse. His offer of a bung of £50million to save the Sleeper service might seem like a suitably couthy idea but it benefits few and comes with strings.
It requires a matched investment from the Scottish Government which must come up with the goods within a tight timescale or the deal is off. Which is rich given that the UK Treasury has cut Scotland’s capital spend this year and beyond. The required match funding would have to come from within that already allocated and dwindling pot. Other infrastructure projects would suffer as a result.
Already we in Scotland pay dearly for the Caledonian Sleeper. It costs an eye-watering £21 million annually to run and is already fully subsidised by the Scottish Government as part of the franchise agreement with First ScotRail (or ScotFail as it has become less-than-affectionately known).
That’s a lot of lolly for a service whose passenger numbers are falling. What prompted George Osborne’s surprise announcement is a bit of a mystery. Unless he just wanted a quintessentially Scottish investment project to showcase the respect agenda. But there is little respect in demanding that the Scottish Government also cough up.
It’s a bit of a lose-lose situation for the Finance Secretary. For weeks he has been beseeching the UK Government to do more to kickstart economic growth, calling for an investment fund with a pro-rata share for Scotland. £4m he was looking for, and along comes the Chancellor with an offer of £50 million. So what is the Scottish Government to do? Accept the largesse and jeopardise its own investment plans, or turn down the money and risk opprobrium from the media and opposition parties? Of course, they could try and call Osborne’s bluff by saying no to the £50m for the sleeper service and asking for it to be spent elsewhere on the railways in Scotland.
For there is plenty that could do with that kind of investment. The now stalled Borders rail link for starters. Or additional spend on station improvements, especially making some of them more accessible to disabled passengers; the money could be used to accelerate projects like Haymarket station upgrade in Edinburgh which has shocking access and passenger provision. The lift option to two platforms is a joke.
Indeed, the total investment pot for station improvements is, at £40m, less than this one injection of capital, though First ScotRail deserves praise for delivering its investment programme on schedule (which is more than can be said for its trains at the moment).
But of course, Osborne won’t fall for that one. It’s take it or leave it, this or nothing. Where’s the respect in that?
What the burd suggests – respectfully of course – is that the Scottish Government swallows its pride and says thanks, but no thanks. We’re the government here in Scotland, voted in with an overall majority, and we make the decisions on where and how to invest money. Your £50 million? With the kind of conditions that would make even one of our parsimonious banks blush? To be spent on something that is not a priority or in current investment plans? I don’t think so.
Money is in short supply and cannot be squandered or applied wrongly. Scotland needs investment in the sort of infrastructure projects that guarantee not only short term gain through jobs saved and created, but also a decent long term return. This £50 million, after all, is unlikely to come to Scotland directly, with most of the rolling stock likely to be bought from elsewhere. And there is only conjecture that such an investment in improved trains and train facilities would result in more passengers. But the price will remain the same and will continue to put many off.
No, we must ensure that what money is available is spent wisely. And romantic it may be, but the Caledonian Sleeper might be the kind of luxury ticket item we can no longer afford.