Comment: Don’t expect ScotRail changes overnight

FirstGroup will be succeeded by Dutch firm Abellio in April as the holders of the ScotRail franchise. Picture: Ian Georgeson
FirstGroup will be succeeded by Dutch firm Abellio in April as the holders of the ScotRail franchise. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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THE new owners of ScotRail promise much – but don’t expect improvements soon, writes Alastair Dalton

Within two months, control of most of Scotland’s trains will have changed hands in arguably the biggest shake-up since the end of British Rail 20 years ago.

But contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, it’s not the incoming ScotRail operator’s performance elsewhere that will count, but its skill at running the train set it will inherit.

ScotRail, which has been controlled by Aberdeen-based FirstGroup for the past decade, will, on 1 April, pass to Dutch state railways offshoot Abellio, which has won the next ten-year franchise.

At the same time, the Scotland-London Caledonian Sleeper trains will be split from ScotRail and run by Hampshire-based Serco.

But the changes start even sooner, with Perth-based Stagecoach taking over the Scotland-London East Coast franchise on 1 March, which it will run with minority partner Virgin.

Much has been made by critics of Abellio’s poor performance in running another train franchise – Greater Anglia.

But that misses the point. The gripes involve different trains, a different fare structure and, crucially, a different workforce from ScotRail’s – almost all of which will continue under Abellio.

ScotRail is nearly back to its record 90 per cent passenger satisfaction levels, and even seems to be turning the corner on chronic problems such as the way it handles delays.

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Instead, the challenge for the Dutch is managing passenger expectations as the number of people trying to squeeze on to trains continues to rise. It’s been increasing pretty steadily since 2002, with a new Scottish record of 90.7 million a year being announced last week.

Abellio has pledged fleets of brand new and refurbished trains, with more room for both commuters on the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line and longer distance travellers on the often equally-crowded routes north to Aberdeen and Inverness.

However, none of these will arrive overnight, and things might get worse before they get better as more people take to the rails.

It will be nearly three years before we see the first of the new trains, while Serco’s promised brand new sleeping cars and East Coast’s new fleet will take even longer.

The railways is now a major boom industry when much of Scotland’s economy is still making a faltering recovery from recession.

Ministers have hailed a “new golden age” of the train, and bullish rail chiefs talk of a “build it and they will come” optimism about further expansion.

The key, then, is ensuring the railways don’t become a victim of their own success – and become unable to handle their accelerating popularity.