It is trying to build “the best railway Scotland has ever had” but no one could have imagined it would be this difficult, writes Alastair Dalton.
The ScotRail-Network Rail alliance is approaching Halloween having suffered a series of enduring nightmares while attempting to make things better for its near-on 100 million annual passengers.
Two additional fleets of trains announced four years ago should have been in full swing by now. In addition, with two performance improvement plans in force, poor punctuality that has caused misery for commuters should have been turned round and be firmly on an upward trajectory.
But none of that has happened.
Only around ten of 70 brand new electric trains are in service, such as on the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line. The first should have been introduced more than a year ago, but they have been delayed by series of problems including to their windscreens and brakes, and setbacks to the electrification of the route.
The introduction of the other fleet, of 40-year-old diesels for longer-distance inter-city routes, has been equally problematic. The first of the 26 trains did not enter service until a week ago, some eight months late, after refurbishment of the carriages was severely delayed. Problems even included the wrong type of thread being used in their new carpets.
That will mean most of the first ten trains, which are due to be operating by December, having to carry passengers in an unrefurbished state. “Classic” is the official description.
A year ago, just as ScotRail was showing off the first of the trains north of the Border, one of its former stablemates still at Great Western Railway in England caught fire.
Two weeks ago, another of the trains broke down on ScotRail’s inaugural preview run from Aberdeen to Edinburgh.
On top of all this, the ScotRail Alliance’s train punctuality, which has struggled for two years, has further nosedived.
While officials stressed the impact of last month’s Storm Ali on bringing down the latest figures, there has been a malaise for months despite improvement plans being implemented in autumn 2016 and April this year.
I’m told an increasing proportion of the delays are caused by track and signalling faults which are the responsibility of Network Rail, rather than ScotRail’s trains breaking down.
However, this is causing bad blood between the two bodies, which are supposedly working closer than ever before, because Network Rail is being “named” when things go wrong.
In the old days, they diplomatically referred to each other as “our industry partners”.
I hear transport secretary Michael Matheson this week voiced impatience at the lack of improvement. However, the SNP mantra that fuller control of Network Rail by Scotland would solve the problem has been rubbished by many in the industry.
The pressure is on, and the next big test will come in December when the alliance attempts to add a raft of extra trains, such as a new Edinburgh-Glasgow service via Cumbernauld.
It will seek to avoid a repeat of the enduring chaos down south this year when several train operators launched over-ambitious bigger timetables onto a network that couldn’t cope.
Building the best railway Scotland has ever had is still very much a work in progress – and on current form, it may well remain that for quite some time to come.