High speed rail link for Scotland mooted
The SNP government is considering a high speed rail network for Scotland on condition UK politicians improve the line all the way to the border.
The news comes as it outlined a £12.8bn building plan for Scotland's roads, hospitals, schools and prisons.
In all, 80 projects have been set out, including dualling the A9 and the A96 and delivering fast internet access.
Business groups welcomed the plan, but opposition politicians dismissed it as a "wish list".
Infrastructure Minister Alex Neil said a faster rail link was part of future improvement plans, however, funds had not been committed in the newly announced programme.
In an interview with BBC Radio Scotland's Good Morning Scotland programme, the minister said: "We have had detailed negotiations with the Department of Transport in London and as you know at the moment their plans are just simply to start in London and bring it [high speed rail link] to Birmingham.
"In the select committee of the House of Commons last month a report was produced saying - why don't the Scots start themselves.
"Now, we are willing to look at that if we get a guarantee, in particular that the gap in England between Birmingham and the north of England, is going to be closed."
It is estimated that completing the high speed link from the north west of England to Scotland would cost about £15bn.
The Scottish government said it would expect to contribute £8bn-£9n to the project although the final decisions on timing and route would rest with the Westminster government.
First Minister Alex Salmond, who is on a trade visit to China, said that if Scotland did develop high speed rail, it would "undoubtedly" use Chinese technology.
The SNP leader was asked about it by a Chinese railway official during a question and answer session in Beijing.
Mr Salmond, who was speaking at the Central Party School in Beijing which advances the education of communist officials, praised China's bullet trains and the Maglev system.
'Vital for growth'
Holyrood ministers have said money they get from Westminster, which funds the Scottish budget, is shrinking by £3.3bn - or 11% below the 2010-11 level - over three years.
The capital budget, which pays for infrastructure projects such as roads and schools, is dropping by 36%.
UK ministers have insisted they must stick to their deficit reduction plan.
After the document's publication, Mr Neil said: "Investing in our infrastructure is absolutely vital to grow our economy. Today's infrastructure investment plan demonstrates exactly how, when and what we will invest in to deliver that goal, bringing substantial benefits for all of Scotland.
"It outlines more than 50 key infrastructure projects across a range of sectors. These are projects that will make a real difference economically - driving growth, supporting jobs and delivering a lasting legacy of generations to come.
"We have been crystal clear that we view capital investment as the vital foundation to lead us out of tough economic times."
Mr Neil added: "We will utilise whatever borrowing powers we are able to access over coming years. Indeed, if the UK government listens to our calls for more substantial and immediate powers than contained in the Scotland Bill, we could do even more."
As well as the high speed rail route proposal, the infrastructure investment programme includes;
- Transport - Dual the A9 between Perth and Inverness by 2025; complete dualling of the A96; dualling road network between all of Scotland's cities by 2030; complete construction of replacement crossing over the Firth of Forth by 2016, and invest in "substantial" rail improvements, reducing journey times between Edinburgh and Glasgow, from Aberdeen to the central belt, Aberdeen to Inverness and on the Highland Main line.
- Digital - The next generation of broadband will be delivered "to all" by 2020.
- Health - Through to 2030, the Scottish government "will continue to invest" in property, medical equipment, IT and vehicles; in addition it plans to deliver specific projects such as the Southern General Hospital Glasgow and the Sick Kids in Edinburgh.
- Education - By 2018 the "vast majority of Scotland's children" will benefit from "good learning environments", and by 2016 students in Glasgow, Inverness and Kilmarnock will benefit from new colleges.
- Housing - Through to 2030, the Scottish government will deliver a step change in the provision of energy efficient homes through new-build programmes and the "retrofitting" of existing homes, including a commitment to deliver 30,000 homes over the life of this parliament.
Labour infrastructure spokesman Lewis Macdonald said key questions on the proposals needed to be answered, including how much private cash was needed to make them a reality and which government budgets would be "raided" to pay for them.
He added: "This is just a wish list of projects that Alex Neil says some future Scottish government will build.
"It's a bit like sending a letter to Santa.
"The SNP has been in power for five years yet many of the schemes were in previous plans and still the work has not started.
"What Scotland needs right now is action to get things started - not just aspiration."
'Lack of discussion'
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the "giant omission" in the proposals was a lack of discussion about the impact of the SNP's forthcoming independence referendum.
"The projects sound good, but there's no evidence that the finances are soundly thought through," he said.
"Given the lack of answers from the SNP on independence, none of the plans can be taken seriously after 2016."
The Secretary of State for Scotland Michael Moore said he supported the Scottish government in "using the £433m of Autumn Statement consequentials to help the Scottish economy".
He added: "That is the sensible thing to do and the additional money for the Scottish Budget, which comes from being part of the UK, can now help create and sustain jobs."
Tory transport and housing spokesman Alex Johnstone, said: "While these projects are incredibly important, a large amount of money will be required to pay for them and Alex Neil must provide more detail as to where it is coming from."
He went on: "With the uncertainty caused by the SNP's refusal to get on with the referendum, Scotland needs stability if it is to be asked to fund these long-term plans."
CBI Scotland director Iain McMillan welcomed the announcement, saying: "These projects will help ensure Scotland's infrastructure remains internationally competitive while building our long term economic capacity."
Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, added: "This review of the infrastructure investment plan was an essential response to the changing economic climate and we welcome the Scottish government's commitment to a long term plan to improve Scotland's transportation links and built environment."
The Institution of Civil Engineers in Scotland, which represents 8,500 workers, backed the programme, as did the Scottish Building Federation - although the body warned the "acid test" would be how quickly the schemes come forward.