Alastair Dalton: No quick fix for overcrowding

The pressure on ScotRail on overcrowding has increased. Picture: Michael Gillen
The pressure on ScotRail on overcrowding has increased. Picture: Michael Gillen
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OVERCROWDING on our trains is a problem with no quick fix, writes Alastair Dalton

ScotRail says it’s a “really nice problem to have”, but increasing numbers of their passengers will think the opposite. Scotland’s railways are fast becoming a victim of their own success, as more and more travellers try to cram into the same number of carriages.

The pressure on ScotRail on overcrowding increased last month when it had to divert trains from other lines to serve the new Borders Railway.

But – surprise, surprise – after all the marketing hype, the route became a runaway success.

The size of the trains immediately proved to be insufficient, and more carriages have since had to be added to many services on the route.

It is hard to believe this won’t have put a further squeeze on passengers elsewhere.

There have been long-standing complaints about overcrowding from travellers on several other key lines across Scotland as annual passenger numbers have steadily increased by a total of one-third to more than 90 million over the past ten years.

Lack of space on inter-city services between Inverness, Aberdeen and Edinburgh and Glasgow is an oft-voiced bugbear.

Elsewhere, the previous operator of ScotRail was fined £70,000 for running a Dunblane-Edinburgh train with too few carriages more than 100 times.

Last week, when a passenger tweeted a photograph of a crammed Edinburgh-Dundee train, ScotRail admitted: “It can be uncomfortable on peak services”.

Then, on Tuesday, police officers were on hand at Waverley Station in Edinburgh as passengers tried to fit on to a crowded North Berwick-bound train after the previous one had been cancelled because of another operator’s train blocking the line.

It was the final straw for some commuters on the route, who ironically benefit from ScotRail’s newest trains, which are now clearly not big enough to meet demand.

Abellio, the firm which took over ScotRail in April, knew the scale of the overcrowding problem when it bid for the franchise, no doubt having heard directly of passengers’ experiences at the many meetings it held across the country.

That’s why it ordered two fleets of new trains to provide more space, and some existing trains are due to be “cascaded” to other routes to add seats there too.

But the first of these won’t arrive for another two years – and there appears to be no quick fix available to ease the pressure in the interim.

There is a Britain-wide shortage of diesel trains, which ScotRail lacks the most.

ScotRail has already hired two locomotive-hauled trains with older carriages, but these are very expensive to operate compared with its other trains, whose engines are beneath the carriages.

However, part of the problem is the company apparently doesn’t know how busy its services are, and where the worst problems lie.

Automatic passenger counters fitted to trains will help, but they are only now starting to be introduced.

So, I’m told, ScotRail is about to embark on a major passenger-counting exercise to pinpoint the greatest overcrowding. It plans to use the results to juggle the existing train fleet as best as it can to provide carriages where they are most needed.

Some trains could also be brought out of maintenance, but surely these are never out of service longer than absolutely necessary?

However, the big question must be how ScotRail can avoid robbing Peter to pay Paul, since, at peak hours, it will already be seeking to press every available train into service.

Scottish ministers like basking in the reflected glitter of what they describe as the “new golden age of the train”. But sharp thinking will be required of our rail chiefs to prevent that becoming very tarnished by the time the shiny new ones arrive.