Conservative Transport

With 70 million people ­passing through every year, Heathrow Airport is full up. How we solve the problems facing the UK’s most vital gateway is an issue for the whole country, Scotland included.Ruth Davidson, Best solution to Scotland’s air dilemma is third runway at Heathrow

Conservative politicians disregard global warming and climate change in much the same way as the Judas goat ignores the slaughterhouse employees with stun guns and knives. They know where their money comes from. The Global Warming Policy Foundation, a London-based climate change denialist body, is chaired by Nigel Lawson, Thatcher’s Chancellor: they can’t be questioned directly about the sources of their funding, but some freedom of information requests about these anti-scientists interaction with government bodies can be found at WhatDoTheyKnow.

So it’s not surprising that Ruth Davidson, new leader of the Scottish Conservatives, should publicly favour a third runway at Heathrow. When Tim Yeo is demanding David Cameron prove he’s a man and not a mouse (mice don’t build runways), it’s turned into what Simon Jenkins inelegantly describes as “big willy politics” – will David Cameron prove he’s man enough to thrust the third runway into Heathrow despite a cross-party consensus against it? In circumstances like that, what’s surprising is not that Ruth Davidson wrote an article about her support for the third runway: it’s just odd she aimed for Scotland on Sunday instead of the Telegraph.

But leaving aside climate change for the moment (though we shouldn’t), what’s the worst thing about going on holiday by plane?

For most of us, if all goes according to plan, it’ll be the transit through Heathrow. If you’re David Cameron or aspire to be, rich enough to have a private jet or pay for upper-first-class travel, you may not have noticed this, but if you’re anyone else, it’ll be one of the bad memories of travel even if your journey is not disrupted by volcanic ash, bad weather, pay and staff cuts, moronic anti-terrorist actions, the US’s TSA nightmare, or anything else that can turn a planned trip running on schedule into hours of waiting with expensively-bad food in huge rooms full of anxious people. And, of course, flying via Heathrow from Scotland adds at least a hundred pounds per person on to the cost of the holiday, no matter how you plan to get there.

But because Heathrow is the biggest hub in the UK, sometimes there’s just no alternative. It’s expensive. It’s inconvenient. It’s annoying. Heathrow is what Douglas Adams was thinking of when he said no language had developed the phrase “as pretty as an airport”.

Davidson says:

Dr Beeching would find Scottish rail infrastructure pretty much as he left it in the 1960s

The Beechings cuts and the Major privatisation were the two huge Conservative blows to train transport. Although the fifteen-minute-interval trains between Waverley and Queen Street are the easiest way by far of getting between Edinburgh and Glasgow, if by now the most expensive method thanks to Tory price rises, Davidson bemoans “that Scotland’s two biggest cities do not have a standard six-lane motorway between them”.

Of course the last ten years have seen re-opening of lines long-closed by the Conservatives – rail services returning after forty years absence – the Argyle Line (December 2005) for Chatelherault, Merryton and Larkhall: Stirling to Alloa (May 2008) and other stations like Laurencekirk, Gretna Green, Dyce and New Cumnock, the relaid Edinburgh to Airdrie line, and the hope of a train from Edinburgh to Galashiels via Dalkeith by 2014 – the Borders haven’t had a train service since Beechings. But why would Ruth Davidson be aware of any of this? When was the last time she waited on North Bridge to catch a bus to the Borders, or got a bus between Edinburgh and Glasgow because she couldn’t afford the train fare?

Davidson acknowledges:

Taxes on air travel are higher in the UK than anywhere else in the world, rising by 300 per cent on some routes, and of course for anyone travelling via another airport south of the Border, they have to pay double duty.

With the priority for landing slots at Heathrow going to more profitable European or long-haul flights, domestic services risk being squeezed out. Those remaining, such as BA’s service from Glasgow, are increasingly vulnerable to price hikes. And without expansion, airports such as Inverness and Aberdeen cannot launch new services for which there is already proven demand.

It’s usually much cheaper – if you’re traveling by plane – to be able to get a direct flight from Edinburgh or Glasgow, or even if you have to change planes, to change at Schipol or other better-planned less-nightmarish hubs than Heathrow. But Davidson is concerned that although this will save Scots money and time, still she worries that we won’t be able to cope with longer flights from Scottish airports or “less familiar surroundings” than Heathrow. (It’s nice of her to worry so, but really: misplaced concern. We go on holiday to enjoy less familiar surroundings….)

And more to the Tory point, Scottish airports using other hubs than Heathrow means that the Heathrow-based companies will be making less money. That won’t do. What is the convenience of Scottish travellers compared to a loss for Tory donors?

The final three paragraphs would have gone down a treat at the Telegraph, but I wonder how they’ll be received by the Scotland on Sunday audience? The assertion that Heathrow must continue to dominate British air travel and Scottish airports mustn’t think they can create international partnerships for themselves isn’t convincing to a Scot used to air travel from Edinburgh or Glasgow:

All this persuades me to support the Scottish case for increasing capacity at Heathrow. We cannot wait for Boris ­Island or put all our eggs in the basket of a high-speed rail link. We cannot afford to lose domestic services and we certainly shouldn’t sit back and let Scottish travellers shoulder the burden of higher fares when a solution is at hand.

Well, there is. The solution is to take air traffic away from Heathrow – and to encourage travellers to go by train instead of plane. It used to be easy and affordable to get to London by train: it should be easier to get around Scotland by train. None of this would win Davidson Tory approval at Westminster, though.

Davidson’s claim that it will be cheaper and easier for Scottish travellers if Westminster spends more on the Heathrow bottleneck demonstrates either a colossal unawareness of the reality of travel for ordinary mortals, or a belief that it doesn’t matter what her Scottish readers think, only that the Westminster Conservative Party approves her views.

In which case, she should really have aimed for publication in the Telegraph.

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Filed under Public Transport, Sustainable Politics, Travel

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