ON THE day that thousands of Scottish commuters returned to work after their New Year holidays, a journey on the railways could hardly have seemed worse.
As if an inflation-busting hike in prices was not bad enough, a series of points failures crippled the flagship Edinburgh to Glasgow service, the nation's busiest route.
And today Scotland on Sunday can reveal that the same Edinburgh to Glasgow service that was beset by technical failures last week is now one of the most expensive rail routes in Europe, according to research involving 10 popular city journeys on the Continent.
The 16.20 standard peak-time return between Scotland's two biggest cities costs 35p per mile - double the equivalent price that an Italian commuter would pay (17.8p) to travel between Rome and Milan. An equivalent ticket from Warsaw to Krakow costs 21p a mile. A standard Berlin to Munich return is the only rail journey (37p a mile) that is more expensive than travelling from Edinburgh to Glasgow.
James King, the Scottish member of the Rail Passengers Council, the national rail watchdog, said Scotland on Sunday's research echoed the findings of the National Passengers' Council that rail fares are too expensive.
He said: "Passengers are increasingly dissatisfied with the value for money of British rail tickets and there is a danger that we are creating a rich person's railway. Raising fares while trying to raise passenger numbers is perverse. It is unfair that today's passengers should have to pay for the investment needed to attract new custom."
First ScotRail, which took charge of Scottish rail services from National Express 15 months ago, said that last week's fare increases, including an 8.5% rise in a cheap day return from Edinburgh to Glasgow - now 8.90 - will be used to improve services and facilities.
That investment is needed, industry analysts say, because of Britain's historic failure to spend enough money on the railways.
Between 1976 and 1994, government grants fell from 26% of British Rail revenues to 15%, making Britain the least subsidised railway system in Europe. As a direct result, tracks on national routes and rolling stock were not upgraded. Ticket prices rose repeatedly to make up for the fall in passenger numbers, which only served to choke demand further .
John Major's government saw British Rail broken into 25 companies. But the Paddington rail disaster in 1999, and the Hatfield crash one year later, destroyed investor confidence in track operator Railtrack, resulting in economic turmoil and the company going into administration in 2001.
Ken Sutherland, research officer for industry group Rail Futures Scotland, said: "The word investment has been used mischievously over the years. Most of the money has been spent on maintaining existing equipment rather than investing in new technology. The system has been starved of real investment for four decades.
"Equipment has been replaced on a like-for-like basis. On the Perth to Aberdeen line there are still obsolete semaphore signalling systems, designed in the 1920s, which rely on wires, pulleys and bells rather than modern colour light signals. It's antiquated."
A 40m programme of investment has been promised for customers across Scotland for the seven-year life of First ScotRail's franchise. Half of that will be spent on upgrading stations, with 7m spent on reliability improvements such as new track temperature sensors which will alert staff more quickly to problems during extreme weather.
The latest figures, released in June 2005, support First ScotRail's contention that performance is getting better, with 94.6% of trains on the key Edinburgh to Glasgow route arriving on time - 3% better than a year ago under National Express. However, the fastest service between Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1970 was 43 minutes, compared with 48 minutes now.
Despite the company figures, improvements are not happening fast enough, according to rail experts.
Ken Sutherland said: "There has been no improvement in material quality over the last year. I don't think that saying there has been an improvement in punctuality actually means anything. If you buy a tin of beans, you expect the contents to match the label. In transport terms, punctuality should be taken for granted in the same way."
First ScotRail claimed it has cut its contribution to delays by 20% since taking over in October 2004, but Robert Samson, passenger link manager at the Rail Passengers' Council, said this had been cancelled out by track and signal failures.
He added: "For commuters, value for money is tied into punctuality. With business travellers, their company pays so they don't blink an eyelid, whereas other people will want to book weeks in advance to get cheaper Apex tickets."
Gordon Dewar, the company's commercial manager, said: "If the off-peak Glasgow to Edinburgh fare had increased by inflation since 1997 it would cost over 10 by now, but it actually costs less than 9.
"Comparisons with Europe are difficult to make because the levels of subsidy are different. We are offering value for money."
HOW UK TICKET PRICES COMPARE
RAIL COSTS IN THE UK
Glasgow to Edinburgh (46.2 miles): 16.20 (standard peak rate) or 8.90 (off peak) Edinburgh to London (412.1 miles): 94.10 (saver return)
RAIL COSTS IN EUROPE
Paris to Lyon (284.4 miles): 78.59 Berlin to Munich (356.59 miles): 132.26 Warsaw to Krakow (157 miles): 33 Vienna to Salzburg (232.48 miles): 54.42 Rome to Milan (361.44 miles): 64.38 Madrid to Seville (336.95 miles): 92.38 Lisbon to Oporto (198.8 miles): 51.72 Dublin to Belfast (101.4 miles): 24.11, or 33.08 on a Friday > 23.78p or 32.62p a mile