Cllr Brian Collins, chair of the South West Scotland Regional Transport Partnership.
Introducing our guest, Scottish Chairman Derek Halden said that Brian Collins had cut his transport teeth in the RAF driving Class 1 vehicles around muddy airfields. After a time working at the Sullom Voe Oil Terminal, he managed an engineering workshop in Saudi Arabia.
He was a Class 1 driving instructor prior to his election to Dumfries and Galloway Council in 2007. Since his appointment as Chair of SWestrans he has taken a keen interest in transport matters, and is Vice Chair Scotland for the West Coast 250 Rail Campaign. He has been married for 38 years and has four children.
Brian recalled that at this event last year, former transport minister Stewart Stevenson had remarked that if the Regional Transport Partnerships had not already existed, the SNP Government would have found it unnecessary to create them. There was however mounting evidence across Europe that such Partnerships played a valuable role in bringing people together and building a consensus behind aspirations.
With a Board comprising five elected members plus a representative of both the NHS and Scottish Enterprise, SWestrans was a model three RTP which like SPT and Zetland was responsible for delivering socially necessary services. With a density of only 22 persons per square mile, Dumfries and Galloway had an ageing population, and 18% of the elderly were reckoned not to cross their own front door once in a month. The M74 represented the "Dumfries and Galloway bypass", and beyond it lay Scotland's forgotten corner with opportunities for cycling and walking, great scenery and a need for investment to encourage people to visit.
The experience of the NHS in Dumfries had revealed that many health professionals were married to other such professionals so needed good connectivity in order to pursue their careers. SWestrans wanted a Fastlink road not just to Moffat but all the way to Edinburgh. With a new hospital approved and sites out to consultation, they were pressing for a Dumfries Southern Bypass, though the town with a population of 47,000 had not perhaps yet reached the critical mass needed to press for further investment. The Crichton site although largely redeveloped as a university campus still retained some psychiatric functions whose relocation to the new hospital could allow schools to be co-located there.
The A75 Euro-route also had to accommodate much shorter-distance traffic. Stena's recent introduction of vessels three times the size of any previously used on the North Channel crossing had given some leverage in pressing for improvements: dualling could not be justified, but three-lane sections for overtaking might provide a kamikaze opportunity. The North Channel route was in competition with Holyhead to where the traffic could shift if it was not properly accommodated, but the new vessels provided attractive scope for hen parties to shuttle to and fro. The Stena team were superb people to work with, and membership of the North Channel Partnership brought together public and private sector interests seeking to sustain ferry services between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Relocation to Cairnryan meant that Stranraer was no longer the place with a ferry carpark within the town, and while the seafaring jobs had been kept the operation was now detached from it, losing the incidental spending that had once taken place in its shops. Easy interchange between train and ship had not happened in a long time, but maybe restoration of railfreight could help make the case for a better passenger service to Stranraer - Girvan Horizons saw three potential freight customers in their area - and infrastructure secretary Alex Neil was now chairing a taskforce on the town's regeneration.
Rail services elsewhere were in need of improvement - one could be in London earlier than it was possible to reach Glasgow or Edinburgh by train - and SWestrans sought new stations at Dunragit, Thornhill, Eastriggs and Beattock. The Nith Valley Line had a deep rural frequency, which was maybe appropriate between Dumfries and Kilmarnock, but Dumfries-Carlisle was the main rail link with the outside world and "if you don't have the service you can't get the passengers". The longest gap between two adjoining stations in Britain of 48 miles between Carstairs and Lockerbie spoke volumes about the region's lack of connectivity, and Lockerbie while a valuable railhead offered limited calls, but it was helpful to be a member of the West Coast 250 group of local authorities on both sides of the border and he supported the possibility of Carlisle being a hub for HS2 whose construction should in his view begin from the Scottish end concurrently with London-Birmingham. Various groups supported development of the region's railways, but of their priorities he admitted to being more interested in timber than in steam.
Airports closest to the region were Prestwick, Carlisle and Manchester. The invention of the pedal-driven bicycle by Dumfriesshire blacksmith Kirkpatrick Macmillan gave SWestrans the opportunity to promote the cycling in the place where it all began: conversion of the disused railway bridge across the Nith to the Queen of the South cycleway had transformed its surroundings, while the 7Stanes and Stepping Stanes routes attracted cyclists from far afield with a Bikebus helping them get around and the region often featuring in Tour of Britain itineraries. £16M had been invested in 540 miles of cycleways with 7 bridges, and the A75 improvement at Dunragit would complete the cycle link to Northern Ireland. The Southern Upland Way had proved little used by walkers as it was quite a hard route, so SWestrans were trying to promote its development for cyclists. Dumfries was a GoSmart sustainable travel demonstration town promoting cycling, walking, bus and car-share as options to single car-occupancy in which Bike2Go cycle-hire was a key element: people tended to cycle downhill from the Crichton, then take a taxi back up.
SWestrans had conducted a root and branch review of the region's tendered bus services, retendering three-quarters with only a very few taken away as commercial. Breakeven had been achieved much more easily than expected, though it remained to be seen whether aspirations might be dashed if the current economic climate continued. SWestrans had procured new low-floor vehicles as part of the tendering process in anticipation of the 2015 requirement that all fleets should become fully accessible, and had invested in real-time information but bus operations suffered from lack of alternatives to the A75.
The Dgtripshare website promoted car-sharing, but an electric vehicle could not yet go all the way from Stranraer to Dumfries without recharging. SWestrans' membership of a northern peripheral project allowed comparisons with similar areas in Scandinavia. 28% of visitors to the region came to enjoy walking, cycling and getting around in taxis and on two-wheelers, with many motor-cyclists enjoying its roads, and the 2014 Commonwealth Games might bring new opportunities.
The Scottish Region thanks Eddie Glover of SWestrans for his assistance with the event.
Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.
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