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Election 2021: Caithness, Sutherland and Ross candidates tell the Groat what they would do about the range of transport issues faced by the constituency ranging from potholes to slow trains and limited air services

By Scott Maclennan

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A road near John O'Groats with Stroma in the background.
A road near John O'Groats with Stroma in the background.

Continuing our weekly series of asking the candidates to address the key issues facing Caithness, Sutherland and Ross 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 far north. For years local councillors and politicians have had to fight tooth and nail to try to secure vital air services at Wick Airport – the Scottish Government eventually committed to £4 million over the next four years. Meanwhile the Far North Line has languished for years without significant improvements – journey times from Wick to Inverness can take more than four and half hours.

Amid mounting concern about depopulation and employment despite many positives such as Sutherland getting the UK’s first spaceport, 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.

Harry Christian, Scottish Libertarian Party Candidate

We already know the bad news – our rail service is not very good to say the least. The worse news is that not much can be done about it.

The existing rail network depends on routes laid down in the nineteenth century and much of it is single track. The cost of building new lines or even upgrading existing lines would be so prohibitively expensive that we have to accept that it is never going to happen. The journey from Tain to Golspie takes over an hour.

The only fix for that would be with a new rail bridge over the Dornoch Firth; and even that would leave many villages with either a much-reduced service or no service at all. So as bad as the rail service is, the frustrating truth is that we are just going to have to live with it.

So we have to focus on what we can improve. We can improve the roads and make it cheaper to use them. Although fuel duty has been frozen for ten years, 63p out of every pound spent on petrol still finds its way into the hands of the taxman.

This makes not only car use, but buses and delivery charges more expensive than they should be. The Scottish Government needs to be made to understand that in rural areas cars, buses and even home deliveries, are not always just a luxury but are very often an essential life-line.

This is not just the case locally but also in many other rural parts of Scotland and the rest of the UK. The Scottish Government needs to be seeking allies from rural constituencies around Britain so that it can push hard for Westminster to deliver a cut in fuel duty.

Labour Candidate Marion Donaldson

When I speak to residents, the state of the roads is a concern that keeps coming up. The Scottish Government’s funding formula, which allocates money to councils based mainly on population, is unfair central-belt thinking and should be scrapped.

Thanks to poor bus and train networks in this area, and rising living costs including food, potholes are increasing car maintenance costs, sucking money from the pockets of those who can ill-afford to run a car, but cannot do without one.

Our Berriedale to Dunbeath section has long-needed realigning, and improvements such as clearing vegetation to improve line-of-sight overtaking opportunities could be made at little cost and could reduce collisions and journey times.

Clearly, however, we do need to rein in car use and that means investing in faster trains, car-shares, cycle routes, ferry travel, and greener fuel schemes, and grabbing hold of the mobility revolution we need to save the planet.

So, with one eye on the longer-term, we must focus on the mode of travel that promises startling efficiencies: Our Far North Line. Let’s splash it with livery that says “here is the NC500’s comfortable, scenic train line route”. That would boost passenger numbers! But improvement is needed. In the days of steam, the Far North line train was nine carriages. The current offering is two.

The Lentran loop between Inverness and Muir of Ord is badly needed, as is the shifting off heavy goods from road and onto rail but that too seems distant without a bigger government push.

The loss of air connectivity from Wick to Edinburgh and Wick to Aberdeen could have been solved by a Public Service Obligation. The Scottish Government chose instead to part-fund it, leaving Highland Council to fund the rest. It can blame the council if things go belly-up, meanwhile the Caithness economy takes a nosedive. We need a publicly-owned service for the Highlands & Islands so profits come back to the public purse.

Struan Mackie, Conservative Candidate

Reliable, affordable transport is vital in supporting Caithness, Sutherland and Ross’ recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, to retain jobs in the area and create new opportunities for our people.

In many communities, road transport is the only way to get from A to B, and the condition of the roads features heavily in my daily correspondence with constituents. From potholes, temporary patch fixes to road failures, it is a very real crisis that has not happened overnight but rather a systemic failure to invest.

Many political parties talk a good game when it comes to tackling the emerging crisis on Highland roads but actions speak louder than words. When the Highland Conservatives put forward proposals to inject millions more into the Councils roads budget last March, it was voted down by a coalition of Liberal Democrats, the SNP and Scottish Labour. They described the plans as too ambitious and too costly. A week later the Council reported a £44.1million bank balance.

I am a regular user of the Far North Line, and despite the railway being a fantastic asset for the North Highlands, it is unquestionably underutilised. Integrated ticketing and season passes that include local rail and bus routes as committed in the Scottish Conservative manifesto will undoubtedly make public transport more attractive and easier to navigate for rural constituents. But in order to persuade more people to take the train and leave the car at home, the Victorian-era timetabling must be tackled and journey times reduced.

For business and industry however, the real acid test on transport connectivity in recent years has come in the form of reliable and scheduled air travel. Despite warning after warning about the fragility of the air service from Wick, The Scottish Government were caught asleep at the wheel when routes operated by Loganair and Eastern Airways were pulled without a contingency plan. Although the Caithness Chamber of Commerce’s cross-party campaign has secured a £1million annual commitment from Holyrood, it represents less than half of what is required. That shortfall simply must be found so scheduled flights can return to Wick John O’Groats Airport.

Tina McCaffery, Freedom Alliance Candidate

Our train and freight services need millions invested in them and either the service placed in to public hands or urgent talks with the train companies about the high costs of using train or freight services and what they require to be able to offer improved services with more trains available across the Highlands and Islands.

It is also going to be vital moving forward that we investigate the bus services around as well as bus services out of the Highlands and Islands, as these have been drastically cut over the past few years and means people may wait an hour or more for buses.

One way that can and should be looked at as a matter of urgency is a tourist tax implemented as the cruise liners come in, even if its as low as a £1 or £2 per tourist and that money is allocated to our roads including buses and trains and held and ring fenced by the Highland Council, this will provide many millions over each year.

The state of the A9 and other roads throughout the Highlands is horrendous as we all know and this has been ignored by Scottish Government for far too long. The roads in and around Caithness and Wick are some of the worst in the Highlands. It has been stated that the Scottish Government will release £200 million for roads across Scotland but this is beyond doubt a pittance and in fact that figure is what is needed for the Highlands and Islands alone.

MSP's elected for the Highlands and Islands need to join up as an A9 task force and look at ways to ensure the Highlands and Islands get the £200 million-plus it requires as a stand alone figure.

Slow train services and in many areas not enough train services are the bain of nearly everyone's life across the Highlands and Islands and as such I would look to have a task force set up to look at all so called issues with the train companies and identify what they believe are the issues and look for ways to resolve these within the first few months of being elected.

It is good to see the expansion of the airport and facilities and I would hope that this will in turn bring more flights in and out and the costs down.

Molly Nolan, Liberal Democrat Candidate

Our entire Highland roads network is suffering from years of underinvestment and to get it up to scratch we will need major investment from the Scottish Government. Local authority budgets have been squeezed for too long. Leaving this problem to the Council might be politically convenient for the SNP, but it won’t solve the issue – and that is what actually matters.

The A9 itself also needs upgraded, including dualling and straightening in parts – not just as far as Inverness, but up to Caithness as well. In its current state it poses a real safety concern for domestic and commercial users alike.

On that note, the Scottish Government should be pursuing moving freight by rail in the Highlands with far more urgency than it currently is. Not only would a major shift to rail help us tackle the climate emergency, it would also make our roads far safer.

Of course, this would require serious upgrades to the Far North Line – such as reinstating the Lentran Loop – as well as investment into making sure goods can make it to and from rail depots in a safe and sustainable way. It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Rail passengers will also see a benefit, with fewer delays to their services.

As for air travel, it’s important that we hold the Scottish Government to their word in terms of securing the future of Wick Airport. A PSO in principle is welcome, but it can’t just be a PR exercise – we actually have to see the resumption of commercial flights.

Lastly, our public transport links should be interconnected – whether via bus, rail or ferry, it should be much easier to get from A to B with one single ticket. All of the above is within our grasp – we just need the political will, and the investment, to make it happen.

Maree Todd, SNP Candidate

Connectivity is the key to Highland life - it’s how we access vital public services, how we get to and from work, how we connect communities and how we get our world class produce to market.

Good transport needs to be at the forefront of everything we do. Where the SNP have committed to building more affordable homes, we’ve pledged to establish regular transport links in those communities too.

Transport is front and centre in our net-zero ambition targets. We’ll remove the majority of fossil fuel buses by 2023, establish a greener, more affordable railway and to promote active travel, we will provide free bikes for all children of school age who can’t afford them. We also aim to create the world's first zero emission aviation region in the Highlands and Islands and are trialling electric and hydrogen powered planes as well as drone deliveries.

Accessibility is a priority and our expansion of free bus travel is testament to that. Alongside the over 60s and disabled people, free bus travel will be offered to all under 22’s - connecting Highlanders to cities, towns and villages across Scotland.

We’ll keep improving transport infrastructure and we’ve made significant progress in the Highlands over the years. From the completion of the improvements at Berriedale Braes to creating a public service obligation to reintroduce lifeline flights at Wick Airport.

We will complete the dualling of the A9 south of Inverness and continue developing the electric charging network across the entire trunk road making it Scotland's first electric highway.

Whilst we’re making improvements, I’m not naive to the challenges we face. If we are to address depopulation, we have to look at what is holding us back. Transport shouldn’t hinder work opportunities, nor should it put businesses off being based in the North.

There is huge frustration about the state of roads that Highland Council have responsibility for. In the short term, potholes need to be filled to avoid accidents and damage to vehicles but we need to look at long-term solutions.

I’m keen to work collaboratively with the council, to find viable and permanent solutions so our rural communities can prosper. I've begun that work already.

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