Edinburgh loses rail link

Politicians north of the border remain divided over the Scottish Government's decision to axe a proposed rail link intended to serve the capital's expanding airport, reports Catherine Early.

Last week's confirmation that the Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (EARL) will be scrapped surprised no-one. The Scottish National Party (SNP) minority administration that took office this spring has been a long-standing critic of the scheme.

Making the announcement to the Scottish parliament (Planning, 28 September, p1), transport minister Stewart Stevenson said there is "simply no sensible way" for EARL to be built. The scheme, which could cost up to £650 million, would entail tunnelling under an operational runway, diverting a river and constructing an underground railway, he reminded MSPs.

"Projects of this complexity and risk profile demand clear and co-ordinated governance and Audit Scotland told us that we do not have this," Stevenson maintained. He referred to the spending watchdog's recent warning that the estimated cost and time targets for the link are uncertain and that the project has no clear management structure (Planning, 29 June, p6).

- Cheaper alternative preferred

Instead, the government is proposing a standard rail connection to Edinburgh Airport. According to the minister, this will be built "at a fraction of the cost of EARL and without the high risk and disbenefits that came with it". Stevenson estimates that the package will come in at around one-third the cost of EARL. The money saved could be used to improve rail services to the capital and Glasgow, he added.

Under the latest plans an airport station would be built at Gogar on the railway route into Fife. Trams will also stop there, giving rail passengers an interchange at the airport. The station would allow passengers from Fife and further north to access Edinburgh Airport without having to travel into city centre, as they have to at the moment.

A rail link known as the "Dalmeny chord" would be built between the Fife and Edinburgh-Glasgow routes. This would allow trains to stop at the new airport station. Rail passengers from most parts of the country would be able to access the airport via one easy interchange using up to six trams an hour.

Colin Howden, director of pressure group Transform Scotland, has welcomed the revised scheme. The original EARL proposal would have led to slower journey times on the main line Scottish railway, he argues. Transport groups are worried that rail services are already uncompetitive when potential passengers weigh up whether to use their cars.

The Scottish Green Party is also pleased with ministers' decision to scrap the rail link, having fought this year's parliamentary election on a promise to ditch EARL but retain the tram scheme. The rail link would be reliant on a massive increase in air travel to make it worth building, the party points out. "EARL was unsupportable by anyone who takes climate change seriously," maintains Green MSP Patrick Harvie.

But the Liberal Democrats, who supported both the tram scheme and EARL at the hustings, have criticised the SNP administration for failing to answer questions about the cost and timescale of the plans for Gogar. Lib Dem MSP for Edinburgh West Margaret Smith observes: "Different options for the proposed rail link were analysed in detail by transport specialists and the parliamentary committee. The EARL scheme was found to be by far the best value-for-money option."

The SNP's plans will cater for a predicted rise in passenger numbers from nine million to 23 million by 2030. Although the domestic market is in decline, airport operator BAA envisages long-haul travel making up a large part of growth.

- Use of public transport backed

Nearly a quarter of all passengers use public transport to access Edinburgh Airport and BAA wants this total to rise to 27 per cent by 2011. It has pledged to review the target when the tram network comes into operation the following year.

The ideas put forward by the SNP will be more than enough to cater for passengers wanting public transport access to the airport, Howden insists. "Edinburgh is not a major European airport," he points out. TIMELINE

2001 Scottish Government commissions consultants to assess economic case for linking Glasgow and Edinburgh Airports to railway.

2002 Public consultation held on proposals for Edinburgh Airport Rail Link (EARL).

2003 Scottish Executive commits to developing a link to Edinburgh Airport.

March 2006 Bill submitted.

September 2006 Bill narrowly passes preliminary committee stage after concerns expressed over funding.

March 2007 MSPs approve EARL.

May 2007 Scottish National Party takes power with manifesto pledge to abandon EARL and Edinburgh tram.

June 2007 Audit Scotland brings costs and timescale of scheme into doubt and criticises management.

July 2007 MSPs vote to press ahead with tram and to ask ministers to investigate EARL's problems.

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