ScotRail's new era under full Scottish government control may get off to a confusing start – Alastair Dalton

This is a tale about transparency of the often fearsomely complicated workings of Scotland’s rail network.

It’s prompted by the extraordinary but welcome level of detail ScotRail has provided in seeking to justify reducing most of its ticket offices’ opening hours, in stark contrast to the far less clear way the train operator will be run when it returns to state control in April – and the downright confusing term “Scotland’s Railway”.

The proposed ticket office cuts were bound to be controversial, so ScotRail has included in a consultation about the changes a series of tables showing pre-pandemic average sales at each station, hour-by-hour.

They provide a wealth of information about when tickets are bought, how many and where.

The tables reveal the office at Woodhall station, near Port Glasgow, which is earmarked for closure along with Cartsdyke’s in Greenock and Clydebank’s, sells an average of just 12 tickets, even on its busiest day (Saturday).

That compares to Dundee station’s ticket office, which appears to enjoy ScotRail’s busiest hour of the week, selling 247 tickets in an hour at 10am on the same day.

The surprising amount of information about ScotRail’s internal workings comes as we await the full picture of how the company will be run – fewer than three months from its switch from private hands after 25 years to full Scottish government control.

At a time when the railways are starved of fares revenue by the pandemic – passenger numbers remain only 60 per cent of normal – what little has been published about the new structure appears to show that an additional layer of management has been created between the government’s Transport Scotland agency and ScotRail.

ScotRail will return to state ownership from April. Picture: John Devlin

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This takes the form of a new holding company, Scottish Rail Holdings (SRH), which will oversee the service run by another new body, ScotRail Trains.

The few appointments announced so far include former Virgin Trains chief operating officer Chris Gibb as both chief executive of SRH and chair of ScotRail Trains.

This new bureaucracy appears to be in addition to the ScotRail Alliance – the partnership between ScotRail and UK government track body Network Rail.

LNER, left, and ScotRail, right, are both part of Scotland's Railway, but have some different policies, such as alcohol on trains

To add to the complexity, in 2019, Network Rail also created “Scotland’s Railway”, an umbrella body comprising the 150 rail organisations north of the Border, from passenger and freight train operators to suppliers.

However, confusingly, ScotRail seems to have also appropriated the term for itself, such as when it told passengers last month, “the carrying and consumption of alcohol is also prohibited on Scotland’s Railway”, when what it meant was on ScotRail trains.

That’s not terribly helpful when a poster promoting Scotland’s Railway with the slogan is “On a Journey Back Together” showed a ScotRail train beside one of cross-Border operator LNER’s.

LNER’s drinks policy? “You can bring your own alcohol on board.”

The railways are complex enough – and I haven’t even mentioned Great British Railways, the UK government’s new one-stop rail behemoth, whose presence in and relationship with Scotland has yet to be clarified.

With a new dawn for ScotRail on April 1, clarity over who is responsible for what is vital to help both passengers and taxpayers understand a system I’ve at times exasperatingly called a parallel universe.

Can we try to keep things as simple as possible?

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