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The mobility challenge of the Highlands and Islands – an interview with HITRANS’s Ranald Robertson

10 min

Highlands, c. Massimiliano Rossi

The Highlands and Islands region in Scotland, covering more than two-fifths of the nation’s land mass, presents some tricky obstacles for transport planners to navigate. But what if there was a one-stop-shop of transport options to enhance tourism and residential movement in the region? And how do you get everyone on the same page? Quadrant Transport sits down with Ranald Robertson, director, Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership (HITRANS), to find out more

How difficult is it to comprehend the vast expanses of land the HITRANS team covers? Pretty tough. Highland Council, for example, is about the size of Belgium; and that’s just one of HITRANS’s five local authorities. For Ranald Robertson, director of the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership, the sheer size of the land is just part of the fun, as are innovative ways he and his team are looking to get around it.

Ranald Robertson, director, HITRANS

“[We cover] more than 40% of Scotland’s land mass, but we are home only 10% of the nation’s population. So, we’re only about a half million citizens,” explained Ranald. “It can be challenging; and it means that a lot of our emphasis and focus is on the very strategic transportation modes. We do quite a lot of time on aviation, ferries, because they are cross-boundary.

“You are actually crossing a boundary for a transport mode that really matters to people on the other boundary – so for a ferry service, you’re really dependent on your mainland ferry port for its connectivity and into another council area. That’s a big part of our function.”

HITRANS as an organisation has been around as one of Scotland’s seven statutory Regional Transport Partnerships since 2006, covering the bulk of the Argyll & Bute area, the Highland Council area, Murray Council, Orkney Islands Council, and Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar, which is a Western Islands Council.

In terms of providing public transport for covering these areas, as you can imagine, it is particularly challenging. Daily operations HITRANS has been working on through in lockdown – one officer in its team produces roadside bus timetable information for the 2,500 stops around the region, for example – include regular dialogues on moving to emergency timetables for the likes of ferry and aviation transport, managing any domestic ‘staycation’ tourism in the region, and supporting key workers through lockdown.

“We’ve got buses operating to about 50% of normal capacity; we’ve got areas where even through lockdown, Murray Council’s area had about 40% of the workforce having to travel into work,” explained Ranald. “Because it’s got a big manufacturing base in that area: food, drink, oil & gas, whisky. But we also have major companies like Walkers who do the famous shortbread, and Baxters, who have heavy requirements to get the workforce into their business as well.”

E-bike hire in the Highlands and Islands region, c. HITRANS

Ranald notes that transport planners are spending more time on elements in active and flexible travel for residents and visitors to the Highlands and Islands areas. “On active travel, we have some e-bikes that we had rolled out to local communities in Fort William, Aviemore, and Grantown on Spey,” Ranald said. “And these e-bikes have been completely utilised by key workers throughout those initial phases of lockdown.

“I think they’ve been a really useful measure, and we’ve continued to roll out better ways of integrating active travel with other modes. We’re looking to introduce a public e-bike dock system in Inverness which will go live in December.” HITRANS has tendered a system with Canadian company Bewegen for Inverness, something which transport managers hope can provide alternative, low-carbon modes of transport, a shift away from the private car.

GO-HI, and the wider MaaS movement

In December 2019, HITRANS announced the GO-HI MaaS project, partnered with funding from Transport Scotland’s MaaS Investment Fund. Initially envisaged to go live in August, but pushed back to April 2021 to harness tourists flocking to that radiant Scottish summer, the GO-HI mobile application is primed to be an all-encompassing transport offering for multi-modal users in the region, targeting tourists vising the rural and islands areas, and alleviating decades-long geographic inaccessibility of transport to residents.

Orkney Islands c. d_kah, Unsplash

“We’ve been looking to tackle inequality, accessibility, and mobility barriers,” says Ranald. “We do emphasise a fairer Scotland; we recognise that there can be geographic inequality. And, while we have a very large and important industry in tourism, it can sometimes amplify some of the inequality.” Tourism in the region, Ranald explains, “is not 12-months-of-the-year industry. Meaning people will often have to make do from six months of core income.” In terms of wages, in the Western Isles for example, GVA sits at only around 70% of the Scottish average. Earlier this week, analysis by the Highlands & Islands Enterprise showed that unemployment from COVID-19 was increasing across the region faster than the rest of Scotland. “We do have to recognise that inequality,” Ranald added.

In providing the MaaS “solution,” the platform aims to improve awareness in travel options, and deliver a mode shift to more sustainable and active travel options, such as the aforementioned Inverness Bike Share system due in December, and an e-bike public dock system in Lochaber. “We’re looking to remove barriers and make it easier for people to book travel, and actually get a single shop window, with a basket of travel options,” outlines the HITRANS head.

A confluent transport offering

Though planners behind the GO-HI app intend to begin as a pay-as-you-go service, Ranald says HITRANS is “actively looking” at account-based payment options, offering users those shop-window benefits at a slightly increased cost due to the convenience. But, of course, when you have a variety of transport modes on offer, different stakeholders could require different ways of being paid.

Marelise Hamar, HITRANS, showing what GO-HI will look like c. HITRANS

HITRANS has already secured an API integration in place from Trainline.com for Logan Air, in addition to “positive dialogues” with the likes of NorthLink Ferries and Calmac Ferries Ltd on API integration. On the scenic highways around the region, HITRANS is in talks with the likes of bus providers West Coast Motor Share and Stagecoach, who may favour a flash-pass system initially – and, for those who still need to use a private car, the app plans to integrate Enterprise Car Club in Inverness and Inverness Taxis in some form to the GO-HI app, for those tougher-to-get-to islands and regions around the HITRANS landscape.

Clearly, a lot of options are being considered for app users, then: but what has the response been from transport providers to being approached to join a MaaS platform? Economically, a taxi firm and Enterprise, for example, would compete for custom in the region, so is it logical for mobility providers to collaborate for the same pool of visitors and residents in the Highlands and Islands?

Not everything needs to have an automated solution somehow; we’re okay with that

Our region is so vast that it would not be environmentally-friendly to think that we could get everyone on a bus for all of their trips, for example,” Ranald explained. “So we’re recognising that if we can move people away from private car use, or hire car for their entire visit, then we should be in a good place, that we can make it easier for people to access active travel options, and indeed encourage walking as well. Not everything needs to have an automated solution somehow; we’re okay with that.”

“But also, we’re making it much easier for people to have a different choice that they can make: if one leg works well by train, but the other doesn’t work at all by bus or train, that if they could pick up an e-bike, or they can pick up a car club vehicle, then that’s better than doing a return journey in a car, and letting a car sit idle between those times, as well.”

Barra beach, c. James Stringer, Flickr

Ranald continued that, from a tourism perspective, the app can integrate with some of the region’s thrilling offerings: whether that’s the Glenfinnan Viaduct, Harry Potter steam train, or landing on a beach in Barra on a Logan Air operated twin-auto aircraft, this ‘pick-n-mix’ style of transport will hopefully go some way to creating a propitious and low-carbon future for mobility in the Highlands and Islands.

Reviewing success, and the wider sustainability picture

Sustainability was a common theme throughout Ranald’s interview, and signified HITRANS’s wider decarbonisation goals in transport and research in the coming years. HITRANS works with the Highlands and Islands airports, the University of Highlands and Islands, and the European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, as well as partnering in the Future Flight Challenge funding application to Innovate UK, which will be looking at the potential for Highlands and Islands to be Europe’s first low and zero carbon-neutral aviation airspace.

Some of these bigger companies provide workers with transport services at the moment. So we will be looking to engage with them, to understand if this platform can help them

This research into low-carbon transport and offering the likes of public transport and active travel schemes, Ranald hopes, will propel GO-HI into a self-financing model in the years to come, equipping locals and visitors with as many transport options as is available in the expansive region. Financial sustainability aside, in its review of effectiveness, HITRANS has partnered with the Institute for Transport Studies at Leeds to lead monitoring and evaluation, and HITRANS will target potential users in the City of Inverness and Orkney Islands as use cases to see how effective the GO-HI app is being harnessed.

Bewegen bikes in Inverness c. Inverness City Council

“LifeScan Scotland, as an example employ 1700 people at their site in Inverness,” says Ranald. “They would be a natural one. Some of these other bigger companies like Baxters and Walkers, who actually have very significant catchment areas for their sites, provide workers with transport services at the moment. So we will be looking to engage with them, to understand if this platform can help them and rationalise them of what they’re doing.”

Success may come in the form of a fully-fledged, busy GO-HI app that can finance itself, the wider national – and international – benefits of encouraging tourism to a region that has been hit harder by Coronavirus than most in the UK. But the wider potential, including the long-term journey towards decarbonising transport around Scotland, the MaaS approach in the Highlands and Islands will be a fascinating project to keep an eye on for providing a transport mix for one of the most challenging regions in the country.