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Election 2021: Candidates for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch say how they would tackle the transport issues faced by the constituency that range from potholes on the road to slow trains and limited air services

By Scott Maclennan

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Trains at Strathcarron railway station on the West Highland Line.
Trains at Strathcarron railway station on the West Highland Line.

Continuing our weekly series of asking the candidates to address the key issues facing Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch we continue now with the problem of transport.

Though roads cratered with potholes have dominated headlines across the country for some time it is not the only issue when it comes to connectivity in the Highlands. The Highland Mainline as well as the West Highland Line have both been the victim of the extreme weather in recent years that has led to services almost routinely being interrupted and passengers transferred to coaches.

Despite major programmes being announced like the dualling of the A9 and the A96 as far as Inverness – something welcomed in almost all quarters – there are now growing concerns about the timescale of delivery despite reassurances from the government.

Vital rural roads – still the only way to reach some parts of the region – have deteriorated in some places to such an extent as to be almost unusable prompting real concerns that the region is being left behind.

Whoever wins in May will have to deliver on transport for the whole constituency so we asked the candidates what they would do about this most intractable and potentially expensive issue.

John Erskine, Scottish Labour Candidate

The public transport system in the Highlands and Islands and across Scotland is now a patchwork of services, with many areas left behind with no decent provision.

As part of Scottish Labour’s National Recovery Plan for the next Parliament we are clear there should be a focus on rebuilding our public transport links to support the economy and strengthen our communities.

To achieve this, we need to enable our bus services to go back into public hands and provide start-up resources for councils to run them, not for profit - not to line the pockets of shareholders, but as an essential public service that we will all benefit from.

Getting people out of their cars and onto public transport will also help us meet our climate change goals and we should be ambitious in our aims and seek to provide universal free bus travel for everyone.

The effects of Brexit and Covid-19 on the Highlands and Islands have hit us harder than the rest of Scotland and our recovery is now expected to take longer.

Small businesses and the tourism sector all want to see improvements made now to aid our economic recovery and improving our transport links by rail, road, sea and air is vital to supporting this.

Completing the dualling of the A9, upgrading the A82, ensuring greater investment in the Highland Main Line railway and improving our international air links and connectivity are essential to securing a fair recovery.

Local authorities also need more money, not more cuts, to maintain the road networks and fix the potholes that are a frequent feature across the Highlands.

It’s only by using both votes for Scottish Labour on 6th May that you can guarantee that we have a parliament focused on recovery and improving transport across the Highlands and Islands.

Kate Forbes, SNP Candidate

Connectivity, in the form of physical transport and virtual communications, is perhaps the area of greatest frustration in the Highlands. Working with local people, we have resolved some issues.

When the bus service was cut between Culbokie and Inverness, I had several meetings with Stagecoach which saw a better service finally reinstated. After another heart-breaking fatality at the Munlochy Junction, I lined up Transport Scotland to take the issue seriously and they embarked on an in depth study which has now been published. The next step is delivering the recommendations.

Locally, I will always be an advocate for improved transport. Nationally, the SNP will continue to invest in infrastructure and improve transport. We will continue to dual the A9, one of the biggest transport infrastructure projects in Scotland’s history. Although local roads are the responsibility of Highland Council, we will continue to protect council budgets so that local roads are maintained.

On buses, we want to reduce fares for young people, and will deliver free bus travel to under 22s so that it is cost effective, especially in the Highlands, for them to get to college or work. We’ll also invest over £500 million to improve bus infrastructure, including establishing a Community Bus Fund to support new bus services in local communities – particularly useful in the Highlands.

As for trains, we will take ScotRail into public ownership. The current franchise expires in about March 2022, and the current system is no longer fit for purpose. Last, but not least, is active travel – enabling more people to walk and cycle. We will provide bikes for young people who can’t afford one to help them get fit and healthy, as well as making funding available to local government to create spaces for active travel. These are just some of our commitments to improving Highland transport.

Jamie Halcro Johnston, Scottish Conservative Candidate

Connectivity, at its heart, is about how we link our communities, not just to each other but to the rest of Scotland, the UK and the world. When even small parts of the system break down, we can see just how dependent our economy is on these road, rail, sea and air links.

As an MSP, transport issues took up a great deal of my time: everything from potholes to the ferry fiasco. Under the SNP there has been a lack of strategic direction on our ferries, even more uncertainty on air links. Infrastructure projects on road and rail are painfully slow.

We know just how different our needs are from the Central Belt, which is why I believe a proper regional transport strategy is so essential, bringing together these issues with a real understanding of our local economy and local people’s needs.

The Scottish Conservatives have set out some ambitious infrastructure plans for the next five years, including a new road bypassing the A83 Rest and Be Thankful and upgrading the A82 between Glasgow and Inverness. Before being elected, I was an early campaigner for dualling the A9 – something I desperately want to see delivered on time.

In the year that the UN’s COP26 climate conference comes to Scotland, we’ve also been emphasising the importance of decarbonisation, promoting the use of electric vehicles and expanding charging facilities - as well as a more flexible and integrated public transport network.

As we recover from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, there will be a real focus on building back better. With connectivity so vital to promoting our region as a place to live, invest and create jobs, we cannot wait to tackle these issues – and we should not shy away from ambition in building what the Highlands needs to prosper.

Denis Rixson, Scottish Liberal Democrat Candidate

The Highlands cover about one-third of Scotland. We have thousands of kilometres of road and hundreds of bridges. To bring them up to scratch requires almost £200 million now. We need a real cash injection for our roads – not for new ones, merely to fix the potholes. I favour strategic bridges to improve connectivity and reduce journey times, think Skye and Ballachulish.

For the railways I don’t argue new lines – just improved rolling-stock and better use of the existing infrastructure. Our network could do with more passing places and more commuter services to and from centres like Inverness and Fort William. The Jacobite Steam Train on the West Highland Line shows how we can fill the trains. I favour active travel – but we have to be realistic in gales and horizontal rain.

Hydrogen buses – currently more expensive to run but with technological improvements and mass production they will cheapen. We need to get people out of the comfort and security of their motor-cars back into public transport. Community transport alternatives are being piloted on the Black Isle. Extra parking and traffic management would ease pressure on our tourist hotspots.

Flight can be environmentally sustainable. Our feathered friends have been doing it for over 100 million years. There’s exciting new technology emerging to power smaller planes (and boats). We could thrive with small regional airports served by small aeroplanes. There will always be a requirement for speed – whether for family, business or medical reasons.

Hydrogen-powered buses and trains, electric planes and ferries – the green transport future is bright for Highland. Not, unfortunately, for the present Scottish Government which has two half-built ferries sitting in Ferguson’s yard. They are very late and very expensive – and now, apparently, we can’t even recruit the workforce to finish them. It’s time for a change.

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