GARL: On the right track or the end of the line?

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by a Newsnet Scotland reporter

It’s been one of the most high profile issues of the last four years, the Glasgow central Airport Rail Link (GARL).

Planned by Labour as far back as 2003 the £500 million link would take air travellers from Glasgow’s Central Station right into the heart of Glasgow airport. However, when the SNP won power in 2007 the link, along with the Edinburgh trams, was deemed poor value for money and both projects were earmarked for cancellation.

When Labour joined with the Tories and Lib Dems to force the SNP to go ahead with the Edinburgh trams the Glasgow project’s fate was sealed and GARL was no more.

No one will know for sure if Glasgow was saved the same chaos that has so scarred Edinburgh’s ill-fated tram project, but with Labour pledging to resurrect the project if re-elected then GARL is back on the agenda.

Whilst Labour are hoping that GARL will be a vote winner for them, the facts surrounding the scheme and Labour’s failure to deliver it whilst in office, make for sombre reading.

It was in 2003 that Labour described an airport link as one of their “high level commitments” for transport.  It formed part of the Labour/Lib Dem’s coalition agreement in 2003 “A Partnership for a Better Scotland”.  The document detailed the 2003-2007 plans for “the next 4 years of the work of the Scottish Parliament”.

Indeed the airport links for both Glasgow and Edinburgh topped the priority list for transport spending, the document described how:

“By the end of 2006, Scottish Executive spending on transport will reach 1 billion per year, of which 70% will be targeted on public transport.  We will ensure that our transport system meets the needs of business, transport users and the environment by: Delivering rail links to Edinburgh and Glasgow airports.”

So in 2006, the year by which GARL was supposed to be delivered, where was GARL?

The answer is that serious questions were already being asked about its viability.  The public had been given the impression that the scheme was going to deliver regular trains in the way that Manchester Airport does.  Trains that would originate from a variety of West of Scotland areas and call into Glasgow Airport; however the GARL scheme was not going to deliver that.

All GARL was offering in reality was 4 trains an hour, this was less frequent than the buses operating in 2006, and trains would originate from Glasgow Central only with no other network link ups.

When Ron McAulay of Network Rail was asked in 2006 about trains from the south west running directly to the airport rather than going via Glasgow Central, he said “It is probably technically feasible, but at this stage I question whether it would be practical in timetabling and train diagramming.”

So even in 2006, the year in which Labour had promised that GARL would be delivered, this matter had not been investigated properly.  This raises questions over the practicality of the service.  If  there was no link up with local stations then many people in the Glasgow area would simply not bother to use the service.

Newsnet Scotland questioned a number of Glasgow residents and discovered that people who drove or took a taxi to the airport said they would not have used GARL due to this lack of local link up.

Passengers from further afield travelling by train, particularly from the north and the east of the country, faced the same problems with no link up with Central Station so there was no improvement for them.  Those arriving at Buchanan Street Bus Station were even faced with the possibility of a decrease in buses running to the airport.

One group one might have thought would have welcomed such a train service were the business community.  However when Newsnet Scotland spoke to some users of the current airport bus service, their reaction was lukewarm.

One business woman’s comments mirrored many others when she said: “I regularly fly London to Glasgow on business, sometimes for only the day and the bus service works well for me.  The buses run right through the business district so I can get on and off a few minutes from my destination.”

When it was pointed out that there were two train stations within the business district too, apart from Glasgow Central, she commented “Well that would be fine if there was a link up with the train from Glasgow Airport but the current bus service provides a service that the train would not.”

One of the arguments made in support of GARL was its green credentials, it would reduce carbon emissions said supporters.  However as has already been pointed out, a lack of link ups meant that car users were unlikely to abandon their vehicles.  Moreover, estimates at the time suggested trains would take less than 10 passengers per journey, meaning little significant impact on road usage.

John McGlynn of the Scottish Independent Airport Park and Ride Association was keen to develop the existing ‘park and ride’ operation.

The heavy congestion on the M8 from traffic coming from the west meant any commuter drivers who could be coaxed off the roads and onto the GARL trains would mean significantly less road users on the M8 in and out of Glasgow.  He had written to the scheme’s promoters back in 2004, but 2 years on he was still waiting for a reply.

As he commented in 2006, “I am disappointed and saddened by the response to our proposals.  After all, allowing the private sector to use its spare capacity to provide a good service that is more attractive to the public is a very innovative step.  It is in no one’s interests, particularly the Parliament’s, to have a black hole.

“I understand that, in 2002, the cost of the project was £140 million; in 2004, the cost was said to be £160 million; and I have now heard that the cost will be between £170 million and £210 million.  Someone has to ask why these increases are happening and why no one is considering viable alternatives that would increase the level of utilisation without—and I stress the point—costing the public purse or the Parliament anything.  Perhaps it is just me, but I think that our proposals make perfect sense, and I cannot understand why the promoter does not want to discuss them.  I find it very strange.”

As McGlynn mentions, cost were escalating and the black hole that was Labour’s scheme continued.  Apart from the mounting costs, questions were also being asked as to why a private operation such as BAA was not paying for the link themselves.

BAA paid for a station at London Stansted, an airport which it owns, and in Scotland, Prestwick Airport had paid for its own train station, not the public.  Quietly it was being said that BAA did not think the station was viable but were happy to have it if they did not have to pay.

In truth, Labour were never as committed to GARL as they like to suggest.  Some Labour insiders have admitted that they were furious that money was being committed to the Edinburgh trams but there was not the same support for GARL on the scale that would have been needed to make it a success.

It is perhaps notable that the project that Labour seemed intent on forcing through parliament, despite SNP opposition, was not in fact the Glasgow Airport Rail Link but the now disastrous Edinburgh tram project.

The Labour pledge to re-instate GARL is now almost certainly impossible given that regulations covering land acquisition has meant that much of the land earmarked for the scheme has had to be sold off by the Scottish government.

The land sale law is fifty years old and one has to ask why Labour are pursuing a pledge they did not keep when last in power and one that they almost certainly cannot keep should they regain power.