Things must be bad at ScotRail when it’s what people want to talk about when they meet me for the first time.
The latest was a Fife commuter, whose experience of late, cancelled and overcrowded trains epitomises the nightmare that must be experienced by hundreds of passengers at their wits’ end who have signed the latest petition against the operator.
There will be similar tales of woe across Scotland, but we must be careful not to tar the whole of ScotRail with the same brush. Chronic disruption of the likes of Fife will be far from universal.
It is also worth saying that the firm runs one of the biggest rail franchises in Britain in terms of geographical spread and the number of services – some 2,500 a day – carrying nearly 100 million passengers a year.
When journeys go well – and more than four in five do – ScotRail provides a good service, in my experience. In the west of Scotland particularly, it’s a great way to get about, with frequent trains and fares that are often far cheaper than the bus.
The firm’s brand new Japanese-designed Hitachi electric trains are also a great improvement – bright and spacious, with more carriages, better seats and bigger tables to more easily be able to work. Even the loos are better, with larger sinks and a door-lock reminder – even if the hand dryer is somewhat feeble compared to the best on other trains.
The good news is that with half this 70-strong fleet still to be introduced, passengers on many more Central Belt routes are going to benefit from them.
However, this is also the bad news, because the late delivery of these trains has caused a shortage of seats to ease overcrowding and because some of the trains they will replace have gone south after their leases expired.
The situation with ScotRail’s other extra fleet – refurbished InterCity trains for longer-distance routes – is even worse, with only one of the ten that should have been in service by now having been overhauled.
The delays to both fleets are outwith ScotRail’s control, but informing passengers of how they will be affected very much is. Hundreds of trains have now been cancelled over the last month for drivers and conductors to be trained on the new trains because that process has necessarily run late.
But the scale of the disruption will have surprised many, especially when it has affected the new services ScotRail was so anxious to introduce on time, as part its expanded timetable two weeks ago, such as Edinburgh-Glasgow via Falkirk Grahamston and Cumbernauld.
ScotRail has also been the victim of delays which are the responsibilty of its Network Rail partners, such as track and signalling faults, along with extreme weather and suicides.
But it’s not all someone else’s fault. On Tuesday, inexplicably, a train from Glasgow to Aberdeen ran out of fuel in Arbroath and had to be towed back to Dundee. ScotRail couldn’t tell me any more about the incident, other than to say it was a “very rare occurrence”.
The ScotRail Alliance has had two improvement plans in two years, but, for a variety of reasons, there has been little evidence of sustained progress. This week, transport secretary Michael Matheson talked of a “plan of action” to address the latest woes over training. In April, ScotRail will enter the fifth year of its ten-year franchise. Parent firm Abellio – along with all those disrupted passengers – will want to see tangible and lasting improvements by then.