Transport for the future rail and bus services in Scotland have lost more traffic due to the pandemic than in other parts of the UK.

Statistics show ScotRail at the bottom of the UK table, carrying only 48.9 per cent of pre-Covid passengers in the period between July and September 2021, compared with the British railways average of 55.4%.

Bus operators also face lower revenue and rapidly rising fuel prices. The end of special Covid financial support could spell disaster for public transport economics. But if the Scottish Government is to hit its ambitious targets of 20% less car travel by 2030 and net zero by 2045, a dramatic resurgence will be needed in public transport usage.

Continuing with the current transport framework will not achieve this. Transport Scotland needs to learn from continental countries like Switzerland and Austria where bus and rail use has been rising year-on-year while pre-Covid bus use in Scotland fell by around 10% in the five years to 2019. Transport spending needs to shift from major road schemes like the A9 dualling, which generates more road traffic, towards active travel, rail electrification, light rail and green bus schemes.

And public transport needs to be properly integrated to provide a coherent network of interconnecting bus and rail services across the country. Transport Scotland’s draft Strategic Transport Projects Review (STPR2), published in January this year, sets out the Government’s proposed transport infrastructure plans for the next 20 years.

The 43 recommended projects focus on decarbonising transport (which is responsible for 37% of greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland) and improving connectivity. Schemes cover city and regional travel as well as the problematical ferry routes.

Cities need high-quality, frequent and affordable zero-emission public transport bypassing congested urban roads to tempt motorists out of their cars. STPR2 envisages a ClydeMetro network for the Glasgow City Region (this concept was originally proposed by our organisation SAPT in 2005). ClydeMetro will be partly funded through the City Deal and will transform the rail network around Glasgow into high frequency metro services similar to the successful systems in Manchester and Newcastle.

Some Metro routes will be extended on new reserved track along the verges of dual carriageways into housing areas not currently served by the rail network.

Metro routes to Glasgow Airport and Paisley via Braehead and Renfrew, and to Maryhill via SEC and Botanic Gardens are proposed. Dedicated bus lanes will be provided on some roads to create Bus Rapid Transit routes.


In Edinburgh, STPR2 envisages the Edinburgh Trams network being further extended, and some Bus Rapid Transit routes being provided. Bus Rapid Transit would also be developed in and around Aberdeen. These STPR2 public transport proposals are a welcome switch in emphasis away from road schemes. Yet public transport infrastructure projects are not the whole answer. What passengers need is a comprehensive transport network with seamless connections between buses, trains, trams and the subway so that journeys can easily be made between any two places on the network, using just one ticket, smartcard or mobile mTicket.

Without this, investment in public transport projects will fail to bring the benefits that many continental cities have achieved. For regional and intercity travel, ScotRail will be expected to greatly increase its modal share to cut car use, emissions, and overall transport energy consumption.

There will also be pressure from the Scottish Government to reduce the rail subsidy which spiralled to £1.5 billion in 2021. This will be a challenge for the new management taking over when the state-owned ScotRail replaces Abellio in April. Cost-cutting has already started. From May, the number of daily train services will increase to 2,150 but this is well below the pre-pandemic level of 2,400.

Booking office hours are being cut as more passengers use smartphones to buy tickets. Commuter traffic is not expected to return to pre-pandemic levels as many people continue to work from home. If unions call strikes to oppose rail efficiency improvements this will only make the situation worse. Leisure and InterCity rail travel is expected to recover more strongly than commuting. Scotland’s scenic railway lines to the West and Central Highlands, Far North, Borders and South-west rival the world’s best.

The new ScotRail management should boost the quality of service and marketing on these routes. The privately run Jacobite train on the Mallaig line shows there is high demand for first-class rail leisure travel through Scotland’s dramatic scenery.

Some ScotRail trains could be switched from quieter commuter lines to expand services on scenic routes, providing more seats for tourists, including foreign visitors to Scotland. LNER, which operates London-Edinburgh trains, has launched an international website allowing customers from overseas to purchase LNER train tickets using their local language and currency. This is an initiative that ScotRail should join, as part of a campaign to boost green tourism to Scotland. But not everyone uses the internet. The questionable decision by Abellio to stop printing ScotRail timetables and publicity posters at stations should be reconsidered.

A good website should be an addition to, rather than a replacement for, the visual impact of printed publicity and timetable material. Rising petrol prices and range anxiety around electric cars gives rail an opportunity to attract more people to long distance train travel.

ScotRail’s “Inter7City” trains are comfortable and offer competitive journey times on most routes. Electrification of InterCity lines will further reduce journey times and emissions. Transport Scotland is leading the way on electrification compared with elsewhere in Britain, with plans to complete electrification of most Scottish routes by 2035. On quieter rural lines, battery or hydrogen trains are to be introduced, but these are less energy-efficient than pure electric trains. Electric railways also have massive potential to decarbonise Anglo-Scottish passenger and freight transport. A three-hour London-Glasgow/Edinburgh rail journey time target was set for HS2, making the train competitive with gas-guzzling aircraft which currently have 70% of the market from London to Scotland.

The Scottish Government has unfortunately stalled progress on Anglo-Scottish rail development. What is needed is sections of new 200mph railway bypasses on the West Coast Main Line to cut rail passenger journey times and to free the existing track for more electrically powered freight trains, reducing the need for convoys of heavily polluting diesel HGVs on the M74.

Anglo-Scottish High-Speed Rail should be an environmental priority in the Scottish Government’s Strategic Transport Projects Review. Transport Scotland should work with the Department for Transport to ensure HS2 progresses north of Manchester.

This is a time of profound change for transport and the environment. The recently appointed Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth has a crucial role in hitting the Scottish Government’s net zero target, as well as overseeing the launch of the new state-run ScotRail tomorrow.

Bus companies face rising fuel costs, and lower revenue due to Covid. The Scottish Government is introducing a new bus Network Support Grant, also tomorrow, to compensate bus operators for the effects of Covid. The Transport Minister should grasp this opportunity to ensure bus and train services are properly co-ordinated in future.

Integrated public transport gives better connectivity for passengers, and gets better value for state funding. Reducing duplication between rail and bus on some busy Central Belt intercity routes will leave more Network Support Grant for supporting socially necessary bus services in rural and deprived urban areas where there is no rail alternative.

Dr John McCormick is the Chairman of the Scottish Association for Public Transport.