By Phil Marsh

Scotland’s railway under the microscope

Published: 28th November 2016

Politicians look long and hard at ScotRail

It was a cold, dark winter’s night on the platforms of Markinch station in Fife. There was hardly anybody there, compared to the much larger numbers of people that might be expected at other times of day and on busier days.

Most people at that time were warm indoors going nowhere, instead of cold outside and planning to go on a journey. Just as well, because for the few people planning to go places at that time of night, things were about to go badly wrong.

A train from Perth to Edinburgh was shown as running on time. Then it got to be three minutes late. Then it was simply shown on the departure screen above platform two as “delayed”.

Frozen in time

Nothing had changed a quarter of an hour after that train should have been and gone. A passenger used the platform “help point” to call ScotRail to find out what was really going on and was pleasantly surprised to find a genuinely helpful member of railway staff on the other end of the fixed-point telephone.

It was explained that signalling had gone wrong on the approach from Perth to Ladybank, the station north of Markinch on the main line. The train was delayed as a result, having been on time earlier.

Another train on its way to Edinburgh from Dundee came through as planned and collected the few passengers waiting at Markinch. For them, the problem was over.

Wrong time wrong place to sit down

But much worse was to happen the following morning in Edinburgh. This time the laws of Sod and Murphy applied with a vengeance. Something that could go wrong did exactly that, at the worst possible time in the worst possible place, of course.

If a train is going to “sit down” you don’t want it to happen at the start of the morning rush-hour when all of Scotland just wants to get to work or education. And you don’t want it to happen at a particularly busy location, across a set of points linking tracks between two of Scotland’s busiest stations, Haymarket and Waverley in Edinburgh.

And you don’t want the failure to involve the train seizing up so that it cannot be moved out of the way for a long time to come.

At 07.02 on Thursday 17 November, all of these things went wrong, as might happen sometimes. This was a particularly bad time and place. The night before in Fife was small beer when compared to what was about to unfold in Edinburgh.

To know the past is to know the future

A now-retired ScotRail press officer, back in the days of full public ownership, once told his bosses that if anything ever went wrong between Edinburgh and Glasgow affecting the morning peak, it would create serious problems in an era when some people were beginning to think that privatisation might be the answer.

Yes, even then, all these years ago, there were people who believed that the ownership of the trains would determine whether any of them were late or the fares went up. This is worth recalling, because nowadays there are those who believe that nationalisation would make the trains run on time and bring the fares down. Their predecessors believed that privatisation would deliver these twin miracles.

Influential passengers?

Anyway, back to that now-retired press officer. He pointed out that serious disruption elsewhere in Scotland was less significant than any minor problem between Edinburgh and Glasgow. That was because important journalists and broadcasters in these cities used trains to get to work, as did politicians who had to get to one city or the other in a hurry.

Some things never change. On 17 November, with the Edinburgh-Glasgow line descending into chaos, journalists, broadcasters and politicians were all horrified.

Even worse, because of where that delay originated, the knock-on impact radiated all over Scotland with trains turning up late as far away as Inverness and Aberdeen.

Delays across the UK….

And it was not just ScotRail. Virgin Trains East Coast. TransPennine Express. Virgin Trains for the West Coast Main Line. CrossCountry Trains. These important cross-border train operators all had passengers on the go as well. Or at least, passengers who wanted to be on the go.

The timing was perfect from some points of view, if not others. Journalists and broadcasters all had a story. And politicians had something to shout about, thus creating even more of a story for journalists and broadcasters to revel in.

Questions asked

Labour’s Scottish Leader, Kezia Dugdale MSP, was handed what amounted to a bonus on a plate. She stood up at First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh and complained bitterly about railway performance, publicly asking for a response from Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP.

As it happens, Ms Sturgeon is a very sharp political cookie indeed. She seized the opportunity to echo the sentiments of her colleagues in different political parties. Critics of ScotRail were having a field day.

Then Ms Sturgeon’s Transport Minister, the ambitious Humza Yousaf MSP, got on the case. Along with Ms Sturgeon, he threatened Abellio, the current holders of the ScotRail franchise, with the early termination of their contract.

Previously Mr Yousaf had hailed a “Performance Improvement Plan” that ScotRail has embarked upon. This follows previous criticism of ScotRail for unreliable trains and their partners at Network Rail for unreliable infrastructure.

Now it was all kicking off on the floor of the Scottish Parliament, with television cameras and microphones, and reporter’s notebooks and recorders, being used to relay this savage attack on Scotland’s railways to a listening, watching and reading public.

The ScotRail franchise was awarded to the Dutch firm Abellio back in 2014 by Transport Scotland, an agency of the Scottish Government. This franchise began on 1 April 2015 with a contract to run for at least ten years, unless it was cut short after seven years, depending on performance and a decision to be taken by March 2020 – just before the next election for the Scottish Parliament.

Alliance?

Technically Scotland’s passenger railway has become the ScotRail Alliance, with Abellio ScotRail in a “deep alliance” with their infrastructure partners, the already renationalised Network Rail.

Amid all the calls by the railway unions, the Labour Party and many other people, for nationalisation, it is sometimes overlooked that the network itself, including all the stations, is already nationalised. The passenger train operations are privately run but publicly specified. Transport Scotland supervises the ScotRail franchise, having awarded it after a competition involving several bidders.

Labour has lined up to use the future of the railways in Scotland as a stick with which to beat the Scottish National Party, who form the devolved Scottish Government. The SNP themselves seem keen to have a Scottish public-sector bidder involved in a future franchise contest, a bit like Labour in Wales supporting a Welsh public-sector bidder.

Critics have pointed out that if it is all right for a foreign public-sector bidder to be considered for a franchise, British public-sector bidders should be in there too.

Next up?

What happens next? Undoubtedly there will be more calls for the home-grown public-sector to run Scotland’s railway, following more debate in the Scottish Parliament on 23 November and beyond.

Who knows the final outcome? No doubt Abellio ScotRail and Network Rail will improve their previous performance, because they have to. Perhaps watchers of the news will think that the lives of mothers and babies in hospital – whose deaths are already gathering headlines in Scotland – are more important than some late or cancelled trains. Perhaps not.

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