THERE has a been a lot of very apposite comment in The Herald recently about that dangerous and unpleasant road the A9.
I use the A9 quite a lot and have found much to agree with in the discussion, but I reckon there is an even worse road that is for some reason less often excoriated, and that is the 100 miles that link Aberdeen with Inverness, the A96. I recently drove this road for the first time in three years and was appalled by how bad and sclerotic it has become. A couple of days later I drove down the A9 from Inverness and arrived at the conclusion that it is, in many ways, a superior road.
At least the A9, between Perth and Inverness, bypasses the various communities along its route. The A96 (almost exactly the same length as the Perth-Inverness stretch of the A9) goes right through places like Keith, Elgin and Nairn. The latter two are substantial towns; there are constant traffic lights and roundabouts. This makes for exceedingly irritating stop-start driving. Surely long-distance traffic on the A96 should be spared roundabout after roundabout, traffic light after traffic light? Long queues build up and even when you are back in the countryside, the convoys take time to break up, and frustration continues to build.
Altogether the A96 is a fussy, fidgety road that militates against any notion of fluent, smooth driving, and must lead to much pent-up anger. Responsible drivers should be able to control frustration, but there is another issue here. If a road makes constant slowing down, stopping and restarting necessary, as the A96 undoubtedly does, then a great deal of fuel is being wasted.
Over the years there have been campaigns to improve the A96 and even to provide a dual carriageway for the entire 100 miles between Aberdeen and Inverness. But all that has been achieved so far is a fairly meagre stretch of dual carriageway at the Aberdeen end. Admittedly Kintore and Inverurie are bypassed by these few miles of dual carriageway. But then the route takes on its true character, which is that of a tedious and not particularly well- engineered rural road. The frustrations are compounded by a lot of very slow-moving agricultural traffic. Of course this traffic has every right to be on the road; it too would benefit greatly from dualling.
One positive is that Fochabers has been bypassed recently. But surely a road bearing this amount of traffic should bypass every major community – indeed every single community – along the way. This would be good for all the citizens of these communities, as well as thousands of frustrated drivers. I doubt if the fact that the A96 goes right through several towns does much for their prosperity. On leaving Elgin, I noted a big sign: "Thank You For Visiting Elgin". I'm sure that sign has brought a wry smile, or more likely, an imprecation, to many lips. No offence to Elgin, but I reckon many drivers would far rather bypass the town than stop and start their way slowly through it. It's even worse in Nairn, a little further west.
In fact the signage – and as usual on British roads, there is too much signage, a constant clutter of unnecessary, diverting and ill-presented information – only adds to the frustration. In this context the best, or rather the worst, sign I saw was near Forres. It warned regular users of the road to expect delays until the spring of 2015. Happy driving indeed.
It is possible that the A9 has more general notoriety in Scotland than the A96 because it links the central belt with the Highlands, whereas the A96 goes nowhere near the central belt. If so, this is unfortunate.
The two important cities at either end of the A96, Aberdeen and Inverness, contribute massively to our prosperity. They deserve much better. They are of strategic importance for the overall Scottish economy. It's a national scandal that they should be linked by such a patently inadequate road.