August 2023, since being awarded funding for a new feasibility study in November 2022, and after an extensive design and then tendering process, the study is now underway. Due to the required discretion during the tender, we haven't shared any details. So here they are.
Who won the tender?
AECOM and Stantec submitted a joint tender. This took us by surprise, but they really played a blinder by taking this strategy. The previous study in 2016 was undertaken by Peter Brett Associates, which has since merged with Stantec. AECOM undertook the follow up Ellon only study in 2017. Therefore, both consultants who were involved in the previous studies are now performing this updated study. They already have the foundation to build atop, update the 2016 work, and springboard into the new parts.
What is being studied?
This £250,000 will produce a Case for Change report, and a Preliminary Options Appraisal, plus some additional high level Cost-Benefit Ratios. This is exactly what was done in 2016 and 2017, and all will be complete by March 2024.
These study reports will update and renew the evidence which has supported all previous studies related to the Aberdeen to Peterhead and Fraserburgh corridor by building upon this body of work and considering proposals by CNER in later stages of the appraisal. Particular emphasis will be on rail routes utilising the former Boddam Branch, not assessed in previous work.
The expected outcome for this body of work is a Strategic Business Case that is consistent with and conformant to the Transport Scotland Guidance on development of Business Cases in Transport Scotland guidance. The study will also be consistent with and conformant to the Transport Scotland Scottish Transport Appraisal Guidance. (STAG).
CNER, of course, want a rail option to be the clear outcome, but the risk is that if the study doesn't commence as 'mode neutral', then it can be challenged in subsequent stages as not following due process resulting in delays to delivery or even cancellation of any preferred option. Therefore, the study must be multimodal at this stage, and it must be fair.
Ultimately, we have to play by the rules so the work is solid and valid. Should we bias it in any way, everything could be for nothing. CNER are determined to prove there is a bulletproof case for rail in Buchan, there is, and we shouldn't shy away from a multimodal approach, because the challenges in the area cannot be solved by anything other than rail links.
A successful Case for Change and Preliminary Options Appraisal will allow us to move on to the final stage in the STAG process, the Detailed Options Appraisal. That piece of work can be up to £5 million to complete. CNER will need to seek funding for that from somewhere, be it the JT fund again, or directly from the Government, or some other means. That is a bridge that must be crossed when we get there. However, the stronger the case we make with this study, the easier that will be. Ultimately, we are working to bring the entire North East with us, that means community, business and political spheres standing together to demand these new links.
Scotland's Railway are working with us, and have examined our proposals with their graduate team. We are waiting on that report still, but we have heard positive things. Early feedback indicates the Boddam branch is in excellent condition, but the final stretch, between Boddam and Peterhead is very difficult. We were asked to come up with a possible alternative route for that section. The image below depicts that alternative. It is much flatter, there are plenty room to achieve a standard crossing of the A90, and no demolition is required. This example shows the terminus in Buchan Gateway Retail Park, but is compatible with the Inverugie and Historic Terminus options. Unfortunately, this does make the Lido option less likely, but, that may be progressed if a freight connection is desirable on the South Breakwater. That's for the consultant to decide. This new proposal has been looked at by Network Rail, and has been passed to the consultants on their advice.
Will another study make a difference?
This time it's different. We are taking everyone with us, CNER are working in partnership with Aberdeen & Grampian Chamber of Commerce, NESTRANS, and other organisations. Our support is growing in the business community, and continues to build in the public and political spheres. All of this makes a difference, there's a reason Borders and Leven were successful, and part of that was a focussed, ongoing campaign. Remember, in 2016, the Borders Railway had just opened, and the first study was not able to make use of the data from that project. The ground has shifted considerably between then and now.
Besides us though, so much has changed since 2016. There has been a seismic shift in the political landscape.
- Climate Change (Scotland) Act 2019, legally binding Net-Zero targets for all greenhouse gases.
- Scottish Government Climate Change Plan update 2020 including: a commitment to reduce car kilometres by 20%, promoting modal shift from road to rail, and to shift to 23% of freight being hauled by rail or sea rather than road by 2030.
- Rail Services Decarbonisation Action Plan 2020: previous studies assumed use of diesel traction in their appraisal of climate impact of rail options.
- Scottish Government and Scottish Green Party Agreed Shared Policy Platform 2021 including: investment of over £5 billion in maintaining, improving and decarbonising Scotland’s rail network, pledged commissioning of a ‘Fair Fares’ review, working with Nestrans, Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Councils on the feasibility of a rail link between Dyce and Ellon and further north to Peterhead and Fraserburgh, agreement that new road projects will normally only be taken forward where they reduce the maintenance backlog; address road safety concerns or adapt the network to deal with the impacts of climate change or benefit communities such as bypassing settlements, and that Scotland will not build road infrastructure to cater for forecast unconstrained increases in traffic volumes.
- Revisions to STAG criteria This is key. Prior to these changes, the most important factor in any feasibility study was the Benefit-Cost Ratio. Now however, with these changes, BCR is much further down the list. At the top are social and economic factors, regeneration, inclusion, and the new transport hierarchy, which puts greater emphasis on climate change and low carbon modes.
- Planned works in Aberdeen Station Previous studies loaded the Buchan Rail project with costs, including redoubling the tunnels in Aberdeen, and several alterations to Aberdeen Station. Significant upgrades will be made to Aberdeen Station ahead of electrification in 2030, while these plans are not yet confirmed, Network Rail have assured CNER that they will be sufficient to address the concerns of the previous studies. This means the study can focus on the proposals north of Dyce, and remove these costs.
Ultimately, this marks a milestone for our campaign, thank you all for being such a key part of it, and let's keep steaming forward.