Today's Sunday Post column in full.
Will it ever happen? Dualling the A9 between Perth and Inverness is apparently a Scottish Government priority. Work is meant to start in 2017 and finish in 2025. By the time Scotland's most dangerous road has two separate carriageways, minimising the chance of head-on collisions – I'll be drawing the old age pension. If that's a priority, I'm a fast-moving HGV.
Figures obtained by Tory MSP Murdo Fraser show more people have died on Scotland's longest road between 2006 and 2010 than on any other Scottish route.
In the last fortnight another pair of double fatalities has added to the terrible toll. And yet only £50m has recently been spent on A9 improvements – a sum that would buy half a mile of Edinburgh tram track plus two-thirds of a tram.
Auld Reekie's ill-fated, over-budget, un-loved tram project probably wrecked the A9's best upgrade opportunity by soaking up £500m from the new Scottish Government in 2007.
So car and bus travellers on the A9 still experience journey times that vary wildly depending on traffic volume, the numbers of caravans and HGVs ahead, road-works, weather conditions and accidents. The road has a mix of single and dual carriageway and the resulting confusion's contributed to some of the 82 deaths in the past five years alone. Why wait to get cracking? Is the recession to blame – is time needed for good planning or is the harsh truth that beyond the busyish stretch to Birnam and Dunkeld the A9's considered just too quiet to justify major government cash?
The Perth to Pitlochry stretch is used by a daily 10,000 vehicles – just 25% of the total hammering daily over the Forth Road Bridge. The population beyond Inverness is less than half the population living beyond Aberdeen -- and of course Inverness isn't an affluent oil capital. Perhaps that's why the A90 was dualled years ago while the A9 is still waiting.
The ecological solution if for freight and passengers to go by train. Agreed. But the rail-line is single track too! Not only does Aberdeen have twice the bandwidth by road, it currently has four times more trains. There are thirty-seven trains every winter weekday between Perth and Aberdeen, and just nine between Perth and Inverness because the single track means trains can pass only at stations.
I always take the train over the car to Inverness to avoid the A9 – but trains are often full to overflowing, in summer booked to the hilt and a delay for one means a delay for all and missed connections at either end with taxis habitually laid on to help stressed passengers complete long journeys.
Lack of investment and picturesque but time-consuming zig-zag routes mean buses and cars are the preferred means of travel in the Highlands for all but tourists. Slow by road and slow by rail. Are Highlanders doomed to lose out both ways? And will elected representatives score party political points or join forces to get dualling work started fast?
Last week, Highland Lib Dem MP and chief secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, accused the Scottish government of focusing on central Scotland transport projects rather than the A9. That's rich. Transport Minister Keith Brown said Danny Boy should explain why his colleagues at Holyrood voted to spend £774m on Edinburgh trams instead of the A9. Of course we'll never know if the SNP would have used "trams cash" to dual the Great North Road. But some things are for sure.
Glasgow decorators Mark McFarlane and Barry Murray died in an accident at Ralia, south-west of Newtonmore, last weekend. The week before lorry drivers Alex Russell and John Sommerville from Lanarkshire, died north of Blair Atholl. All these men were in their twenties and thirties – their lives ahead of them – until they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time on the A9.
It could have been any of us. You can drive as safely as you like – but if a foreign tourist is momentarily confused about the right side of the road, or a driver misjudges overtaking an HGV compelled to crawl along at 40 mph, or tiredness lets a car career across the central white line – the safest driver is suddenly vulnerable. There have been more than 1,000 accidents in the last five years — that's one every other day.
My Canadian brother in law says the sheer unpredictability of the journey north has turned Scots into "grabby" drivers – always ready to seize the slightest opportunity to overtake.
Despite the A9 tourism in the north is booming with staycationers and adventurous Scots and Inverness is our fastest growing city. How much more would a dualled A9 and a dualled rail-line let the beautiful Highlands blossom?