£50m? Thanks but no thanks

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.

14 thoughts on “£50m? Thanks but no thanks

  1. Don’t you see Danny Alexander all over this? I do. He goes in for quid pro quos, aka the oil tax, little realising that he being humped by the Treasury mandarins. it gives him profile with his buddies but he is too saft to realise it makes that peg even more shoogly. He is out. I have my ear to the ground and I am one of his constituents.

  2. I’ve used the sleeper many times over the past twenty plus years. Not everyone can fly and sometimes the sleeper is more convenient. Where do you get the idea no one can board it in Scotland? it has normal coaches as well as bunks.

    I’d be far more concerned about the potential disaster that is almost certainly going to hit the railways if Transport Scotland get their way. I sense a certain bus company owner behind this, since it might allow him to get a train set in Scotland, something he is already making a ballsup of in England.

    I’m not arguing about the disaster that is Scotrail. I have to use them daily and it’s beyond a joke sometimes. I’m not arguing either that perhaps £50 million could be better spent elsewhere. But the Scottish Government walked into this one with their consultation. Unless they drop it stone dead they are going to get hammered with this. Transport is not their strong suit at all.

  3. I’ve used it a couple of times and I don’t see the appeal. The cost would buy you a cheap flight or a hotel room instead, and in either of those you wouldn’t be crammed in a cupboard with a complete stranger…

  4. Pingback: Wings over Scotland | Back to business

  5. When I lived in Glasgow, I used the sleeper to get back from London gigs twice. Neither experience was particularly brilliant. The first time, I found I had inadvertently booked a reclining chair rather than a bed, which led to probably the most interruption-filled sleep of my life. I got into Glasgow around 7am and had to go straight to bed – luckily, I didn’t have to get up for work until after 9am, although I was hardly alert throughout the day. Fortunately, the gig (Mike Patton’s band Fantômas, playing the whole of their outstanding The Director’s Cut album, which was one of the last gigs at the wonderful Astoria before it was so disgracefully demolished to make room for the needless Crossrail project) was excellent, so it was still a worthwhile trip. However, my subsequent complaint led to them updating their website, to make it more clear what the icons on the ticket selection meant.

    Anyway, my second sleeper journey was to see The Cure playing at the O2. Having sat and watched two rubbish bands (and witnessing how poor Franz Ferdinand sound in a big shed), The Cure eventually came on and played songs from their awful recent album. Terrible sound, awful gig. We had to leave early to catch our train, and wouldn’t you know it, the second we got up to leave, they kicked into One Hundred Years. But we couldn’t stay, and looking back at the setlist the next day, we missed a whole bunch of treats from their early albums. Lesson learned: never get the sleeper back from London if you’re going to a gig at the O2.

    None of that is actually the sleeper train’s fault of course (well, I could moan about the time it leaves London…), but despite making sure I got a bed this time, the sleep was still awful. Again, despite getting a little sleep when I got home, I was fairly useless at work the next day.

    My point? Well, quite simply that I, personally, would never take the sleeper train again, so like you I wouldn’t be mourning its loss. I’d much rather take an extra day off work if need be and stay overnight. Having said that, anecdotal evidence I’ve read says that it’s actually a very well-used service. Hmmm, must have been freak quiet days the times I’ve used it…

  6. I remember the Paddy. It seemed unnatural somehow to travel North all the way to Kilmarnock before turning round and heading South.
    Let’s hope that the Parliment see gorgeous George for what he really is and send his offer homeward tae think again.

  7. Rubbish, Burd, you should spend some time seeing more of Scotland, outside of the Central Belt, before shooting your mouth off.

  8. ‘For there is plenty that could do with that kind of investment. The now stalled Borders rail link for starters.’

    After a deal was done whereby the Lib Dems gave the go ahead for the M74 extention in exchange for a promise to build the border’s rail link, I said it would never be built. I still believe it never will be.

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