Highland collective champions regional transport ambitions

April 13 2018  

Half of Scotland’s landmass – but less than 10% of its population – belongs to the Highlands and Islands whose transport ambitions are driven by Hitrans, an alliance of five local authority areas.
New infrastructure and service enhancements promoted by the Highlands & Islands Transport Partnership (to give its full name) cover the full mobility spectrum. Current aims include improving road corridors, encouraging sustainable travel, boosting rail services and reliability and strengthening ferry and aviation links.
Hitrans partnership director Ranald Robertson and his eight staff work alongside the councils of Highland, Moray, Argyll & Bute, Western Isles and Orkney, as well as transport operators.
Priorities are considered and small amounts of funding allocated for projects and research. Larger schemes are promoted by working alongside others including Transport Scotland and Network Rail.
“We have a challenging brief, a wide range of activities and try to seek consensus on the priorities to be taken forward,” Ranald says. “Our role is strategic, but we have evolved over the years and now have an important role as a transport voice within community planning and support councils in areas such as active travel.
“We are politically agnostic and try to foster good relations with Government and elected representatives to seek good outcomes for the Highlands and Islands.”
Hitrans was established as a statutory body in 2005 with a core purpose of developing and monitoring a transport strategy for the region. It previously received an annual capital grant of £3.5M to spend on schemes, but delivery capabilities diminished in 2008 when the budget was reallocated.
Several major projects at shovel ready stage were cancelled. But despite the setback Ranald is pleased the Scottish Government has since committed funds to several significant schemes including upgrades to the A82 and dualling of both the A9 from Inverness to Perth and the A96 towards Aberdeen.
“The year 2008 was definitely a low point for the organisation, but it challenged us to refocus and show we can make a positive contribution,” says Ranald. “Confidence was quickly restored when the team realised it could serve as a strong voice for regional stakeholders, helped by a number of successes in bidding for funds.”
Today the group receives £750,000 in revenue support from the Scottish Government and partner councils. Various other funding streams, including from Europe, provide Hitrans with a typical budget of around £1.2M. The region has done well from European funds over the last decade but despite the Brexit vote, Ranald remains optimistic that other sources of transport funding can be identified.
Hitrans published its first regional transport strategy in 2008 and the group will shortly present an updated strategy to the Scottish Transport Minister. Ten years ago the focus was on major infrastructure projects to boost the economy but the new strategy is likely to promote a wider range of interventions.
“Our last strategy was published before the global economic shock had really been felt; the world has changed,” Ranald says. “We previously talked about closing the economic gap between our region and elsewhere in Scotland as we were lagging by 25%. But real progress has been made and that gap has reduced to around 9%.”
Much of the strong growth is down to tourism, food and drink which all demand reliable road, rail and ferry links. By far the most significant export is malt whisky. Hitrans previously ran a trial of ‘whisky by rail’ taking products from distilleries in Speyside to bottling plants in Scotland’s central belt, which proved the feasibility of freight by rail.
It provided extra capacity for the movement of whisky south which is mostly transported on slow roads with limited overtaking opportunities. “We would certainly like to see rail freight become a permanent feature in transporting whisky,” he adds. 
Highway schemes currently being promoted by Hitrans include further work to the Western Islands Spinal Route between Stornoway and Barra, where there is a desire to upgrade remaining sections of single track road.
In Fort William, local people were recently consulted on options to relieve traffic congestion in the busy summer months which could include a link road and improved infrastructure for walkers and cyclists.
Active travel continues to be a priority for the region and especially in Inverness, which is said to have the highest rates of cycling to work of any Scottish city.
Hitrans and the Highland Council are looking to develop a low carbon fuel and active travel hub in the city and are working with ScotRail on a £6M improvement to Inverness railway station, including the removal of taxis and much of the parking in the station square.
In Oban, a project to increase the frequency of trains from three to five a day has boosted passenger numbers by a third and begun to deliver jobs and growth. “Oban is a busy ferry terminal and has links to rail, bus and a small airport,” Ranald says.
“We are looking to lead a masterplanning exercise to develop transport services and encourage sustainable travel through car clubs or short term car hire to reduce dependence on private cars heading to the islands and relieve capacity on ferries.”
On the railways, service reliability is an area of focus following concern over a rise in the number of trains skipping certain stops when services are delayed, leaving some people stranded on platforms. “Skip stopping does nothing for passenger confidence and we would like to see the practice end,” says Ranald.
One development which may help restore trust at rural stations is a ‘request the train’ project backed by Hitrans, where a passenger standing on a platform presses a large button to alert the incoming driver they want to board. If no request is made the train can speed through, helping to reduce journey times on lengthy routes. The scheme could be introduced on 15 request stops by the end of next year.
In terms of aviation the group funded a runway extension at Sumburgh airport in the Shetland Isles and supported the renewal of direct services from Inverness to Heathrow. 
Each of the islands to the north and west has “its own special character and unique cultural offer” and, with the help of Hitrans, are working to promote themselves as “attractive places for future generations to live and work”, Ranald says.
He adds that rural communities should welcome the opportunities that Mobility as a Service could bring, such as providing better access for people to essential services. Several pilots will be supported by Hitrans.

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