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Troubled waters for the SNP

Troubled waters for the SNP

What was the SNP’s transport minister doing 10 months ago? That would have been February so his focus, like his Nationalist colleagues’, would probably have been on courting popularity ahead of May’s general election.

Ten months ago, the then chief engineer of the Forth Road Bridge, Barry Colford, warned the Scottish Government repairs were needed to the iconic structure.

He advised that restrictions be put in place and vehicles weighing more than 150 tonnes be banned.

He was ignored and now commuters and businesses are paying the price, with the bridge closed into the New Year after a crack was discovered in a load-bearing beam earlier this month.

We are now in week three of travel chaos, as the 70,000 vehicles that cross the bridge daily find alternatives.

These include a train borrowed from England to help cope with the masses of additional passengers on the public transport networks between Edinburgh and Fife.

Retailers report disappointing trading in what should be the lucrative run-up to Christmas, as shoppers avoid lengthy diversions, 11-mile tailbacks or overcrowded trains.

Businesses have yet to calculate their losses but with many having to warn their staff to stay at home, or put them up in hotels, the final tally could be crippling, particularly for smaller enterprises.

The Freight Transport Association said its members have incurred thousands of pounds in extra costs for re-routing their fleets during what is their busiest time of the year.

And those of us with families divided by the Forth have had to take the scenic route Edinburgh to Dundee via Stirling, for example to dodge the jams nearer the bridge.

Easily averted

All of this could have been averted if the SNP had listened to the professionals. Colford, whose concerns came to light in a leaked email, had written to the Forth Estuary Transport Authority, which ran the bridge until May, saying restrictions needed to be enforced until ‘all the truss end links (as the beam is called) are either strengthened or replaced’.

He had also raised fears three years ago over transferring responsibility of the bridge to the government quango Transport Scotland.

He wrote to Holyrood’s (SNP-run) infrastructure committee saying sufficient funding must be continued once the government took over, as delaying repairs would endanger the bridge’s ‘long-term structural integrity’.

It has since transpired, from minutes from 2012 and 2013 meetings of the Forth Estuary Transport Authority, that repairs recommended five years ago were, in fact, delayed after Scottish ministers cut its capital budget by 65%.

The confusing details of what happened when, and who is accountable, are made murkier by the current Scottish transport minister, Derek Mackay, constantly changing his story to cover his tracks.

First he said the cracks in the bridge were unforeseen; then he conceded that the contract cancelled in 2010 would have fixed the problem behind today’s mess.

Perhaps if ministers let the engineers do the talking, a clearer picture would emerge, but the truth might emerge too, and that is rarely helpful to Nationalist politicians.

Another engineer, John Carson, who oversaw the building of the Skye bridge, said ministers should admit ‘they gambled and they lost’ by slashing the bridge’s budget in the hope that nothing went wrong before the new crossing was completed in December 2016.

Election year

This was obviously what was going through the then First Minister (and noted gambler) Alex Salmond’s mind at the time.

As he revealed on Monday, in his column for this newspaper, repairs in 2010 would have caused eight-week delays.

That was an election year, too.

It will surprise few people who watch the Nationalists closely that they have twice compromised the safety of bridge users while distracted by election campaigns.

If they attended more to the job they were elected to do running Scotland and less to vote-winning gimmicks, this crisis could have been forestalled.

If bridge tolls had not been abolished, there would have been enough money for crucial maintenance.

If the convenience of commuters was prioritised above ministerial (and especially first ministerial) careers, lane closures in 2010 could have prevented complete closure in 2015.

Now the Nationalists have the Scottish election in their sights so it is important, to them, that they escape unscathed from this fiasco.

Mackay has tried, and failed so far, to deflect the blame; telling travellers that the contingency plan has been “effective” will do nothing to alleviate their misery or restore his reputation.

Complacency came from Westminster too, when the SNP deputy leader Stewart Hosie said the “diversions worked well”.

Maybe from his London perspective they did, but for the people stranded on freezing rail platforms and unable to board packed trains, or for the drivers leaving home at six and still not at their desks by nine, nothing is working well, least of all the Scottish Government.