Alastair Dalton: ScotRail could win over more passengers just by talking to them

ScotRail must focus on communicating better with passengers during delays, argues Alastair Dalton. Picture: John Devlin
ScotRail must focus on communicating better with passengers during delays, argues Alastair Dalton. Picture: John Devlin
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As the political and media storm continues to rage over ScotRail, there’s a danger that what’s most important to passengers is being overlooked.

Both the Scottish Government and opposition parties are becoming increasingly desperate to win the propaganda war. The SNP is anxious to highlight what they are doing right, while the Conservatives and Labour attempt to emphasise what’s going wrong.

Transport minister Humza Yousaf was at a photocall this week for a train refurbishment project - which started last year and hasn’t even finished.

Labour issued figures for the number of cancelled trains, without mentioning they accounted for only 2 per cent of daily services.

You might think by listening to them, that punctuality is the be-all and end-all for travellers - even though it is only a shade below par.

In fact, as independent watchdog Transport Focus set out in this slot last week, timekeeping is only half way up Scottish rail passengers’ top ten gripes - or “priorities for improvement”.

Heading the list - and it’s worth repeating - are ticket prices, followed by getting a seat, train frequency and keeping passengers informed about delays.

The last of these should be the least complicated and fastest to fix - and yet it has remained the Achilles Heel of successive companies running ScotRail for well over a decade.

By contrast, many fares are set by the Scottish Government, and some increases have been pegged lower than south of the Border in recent years.

On overcrowding, passengers should see it easing when the first of two new fleets of trains pledged by Abellio when it took over ScotRail last year start arriving - but that’s not for another year.

The extra trains will also boost train frequency on some lines too - but only from 2018.

So what ScotRail should absolutely focus on right now is cracking the communication-during-delays nut that has remained all too often impenetrable.

If passengers were kept better informed about disruption, I reckon many would be much better disposed towards ScotRail.

Even for a train conductor or driver to announce that there was a hold-up, that they were awaiting further information, and that they would provide updates when they were available, is always well received.

Otherwise, the impression is that they - and ScotRail - couldn’t care less.

I was on a Glasgow-Edinburgh train on Tuesday that arrived at Haymarket 11 minutes late - that’s an extra 25 per cent added to the journey time.

But I heard no announcements and no apologies. Anyone made late for an appointment will have come away with a poor impression of what ScotRail thinks of its “customers”.

That’s a minor example, but passengers caught up in disruption regularly contact me to ask what’s going wrong, because information screens and ScotRail staff are simply not keeping them informed.

Travellers should be given information at first hand in trains and stations - and not have to resort to websites and apps to find out.

Passengers also hate seeing trains listed on screens as being “On Time” right up to - and after - their departure times have passed. “Due” or “Scheduled to Arrive” might be more honest and realistic.

Talk to your customers - how hard can it be?