High-speed Rail Links

First Minister's Question Time – in the Scottish Parliament at 12:00 pm on 5th June 2008.

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Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative 12:00 pm, 5th June 2008

I noted the previous question.

To ask the First Minister what discussions have taken place at ministerial or official level regarding the construction of high-speed rail links between Scotland and England. (S3F-862)

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I congratulate Alex Johnstone on being the first member to answer a question before asking one.

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change met the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Transport, Tom Harris MP, on 28 May to discuss the potential for a high-speed rail link between Scotland and England. As I said in the chamber on 6 March, a fast rail link is likely to carry substantial support throughout the parties in the Parliament. According to a recent report by Atkins, the Scottish economy could benefit from such a link by up to £7.3 billion. We therefore continue to press the United Kingdom Government to work with us towards that aim, at the same time as finding ways to improve journey times for existing services.

Photo of Alex Johnstone Alex Johnstone Conservative

I am delighted that the First Minister is once again bringing his Government into a position of agreeing with a Conservative party manifesto commitment. However, given that Scotland has and will continue to have significant commitments on carbon reduction, it is embarrassing that we now have such a large number of flights between Scotland and the nation's capital. Consequently, will the First Minister press forward with a comprehensive feasibility study that begins to move the project from policy and manifesto documents to the drawing board and, ultimately, to trains that connect us to the European high-speed rail network?

Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond First Minister of Scotland, Leader, Scottish National Party

I was busy nodding along with Alex Johnstone and was going to give him a tremendously supportive answer until he started talking about national capitals and ruined it all.

Where we are shows some indications of progress. As Alex Johnstone will remember, in December 2006 the then Secretary of State for Transport received a report from Rod Eddington, the former chief executive of British Airways, which astonishingly came to the conclusion that such a fast link should not be a great priority. I am sure that his former employment had nothing whatsoever to do with that unfortunate conclusion.

We have moved on to some extent. There has been no commitment by the United Kingdom Government, but at least Network Rail has been charged with studying capacity solutions for cross-border services. It will be able to consider all options for improving capacity, specifically including high-speed rail and, of course, improvements in the current service.

I am not overegging the situation because Tom Harris made it clear that there was no commitment from the UK Government to the proposal, but we have at least moved a little from the position in December 2006. Given recent events in the world, there must be a growing realisation that high-speed rail should be considered in all seriousness as the logical, intelligent and environmental way to carry the bulk of journeys between Scotland and however we want to describe the city of London and elsewhere.

I must confess that I had absolutely no idea that a high-speed rail link was in the Conservative party's manifesto, but we must not let that unfortunate fact cloud what might be a really good idea.

Meeting suspended until 14:15.

On resuming—