Dani Garavelli: End of the line for sorry ScotRail strategy

It's quite creative, if self-defeating, for ScotRail to turn itself into some kind of metaphor for the Tory government's handling of Brexit. Here we are in a state of crisis '“ trains cancelled, poor communication and a dearth of trained staff '“ and how does it behave? It tries to shift the blame while promising customers that out of chaos will emerge a strong and stable '“ sorry, I mean much-enhanced '“ service for commuters.

Resentment is building up among frequent travellers whose lives are affected by the unreliability of ScotRail. Picture: John Devlin
Resentment is building up among frequent travellers whose lives are affected by the unreliability of ScotRail. Picture: John Devlin

Scotland’s railways have been failing for a long time. Google “ScotRail” and “mayhem” and there will be no shortage of hits. Whether it’s Storm Ali or engineering works or a lack of locomotives, the company always seems to have an excuse – and an alternative bus service – for passengers stranded in the middle of nowhere.

It would be a rare and lucky traveller who has never had cause to moan about some aspect of their rail journey (or lack of it).

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

The experience is frequently blighted by overcrowding, delays, poor wi-fi and, most particularly, a lack of forward-planning that means every summer the Edinburgh Festival seems to take the company by surprise.

Most mornings, Twitter is full of complaints logged under the hashtag #ScotFail; and though those who man ScotRail’s account are adept at defusing anger, they can’t mask the overall impression of inadequacy.

When Humza Yousaf was Transport Secretary it seemed as if things could only get better; yet under Michael Matheson, they have got worse. In October, the company was fined £483,000 for failing to meet required standards for station toilets, ticket machines, train seats, train toilets and cleanliness. And a few weeks ago, ScotRail Alliance (the partnership between the train operator and track owner Network Rail) recorded its worst punctuality figures in 12 years.

Like Theresa May, all ScotRail’s underlying problems seemed to come to a head last week when it lost any semblance of control over the service it is paid to deliver.

Every day, dozens of trains were being cancelled with little warning, leaving commuters unable to get to and from work. Packed to overflowing, Glasgow’s Queen Street station was transformed into a page from Where’s Wally? The Fife Circle became the Fifth Circle of Hell.

ScotRail fell back on the “jam tomorrow” defence. It said its problems had been exacerbated by staff training being carried in advance of timetable changes that would usher in a brave new world later today.

Coming hot on the heels of a price hike announcement, this promise of a shiny, happy future was met, not with cheering and the waving of flags, but by the kind of incredulous expression Carolyn Wilson, director of the Foreign Office recently wore as Boris Johnson flaunted his ignorance in advance of a meeting with their counterparts in France.

It is true, of course, that not every aspect of the ongoing debacle is ScotRail’s fault. Often the delays are caused by signalling or track problems, both of which are Network Rail’s responsibility.

The company has also been plagued by issues with suppliers, such as the late delivery of the new Hitachi trains which are supposed to cut the journey times between Glasgow and Edinburgh and the refurbishment of 26 old InterCity trains, the first 10 of which start running today. Three of the Hitachi trains were withdrawn from service for a short period almost immediately after they were introduced because of faults with the brake control system and the “refurbished” InterCity trains have been left with old-fashioned slam-doors and toilets which flush directly on to the track.

Recent delays have been exacerbated by a row over pay and conditions which saw drivers refusing to work overtime (that row appeared to be resolved when ScotRail offered to pay them three hours extra for working on their days off).

Then again, neither the company nor the government has done much to alleviate passengers’ travails or instil consumer confidence that the situation is likely to improve. ScotRail often seems downright blasé about the resentment building up among frequent travellers whose lives are affected by its unreliability.

Indeed it chose last week, when it was barely operating a service at all, to announce that its popular Kids Go Free promotion – which allows adults to take up to two children for free in return journeys – was being scrapped. Instead children will be charged a flat rate of £1, which seems at odds with trying to get more people off the roads.

As for the Scottish government: when it gave Dutch state-owned company Abellio the 10-year contract to run the franchise back in 2015, it described the deal as “world-leading”. Having set the parameters for the £6 billion contract – it cannot shrug off all responsibility.

As far back as 2016, petitions were already being raised against the company. Yet the SNP has bent over backwards to defend Abellio ScotRail in the face of its poor performance. After the release of the latest dreadful punctuality figures,

Matheson agreed to waive the operator’s performance benchmarks until June 2019, a move the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association described as a “carte blanche to fail”. This despite the fact that in 2015/2016 it received £293m (or 45 per cent of its total income) in direct government funding, and the SNP has the right to end the contract at the halfway point if it is not meeting a high enough standard.

Much hangs on what happens today. If the new timetables are rolled out smoothly then perhaps the company will have bought itself a reprieve. But if – as seems more likely – the service continues to be beset by delays and glitches, then there must be action.

Scottish Labour has called for a freeze on fares in this week’s budget. While this would be justified and might focus minds, it is difficult to see how it would resolve broader problems with the service.

A better solution – also backed by Scottish Labour – might be to bring the franchise back into the public sector (a move made possible by the Scotland Act 2016).

According to one report by think tank Common Weal, allowing operating profits to be reinvested could produce a better service and create a lower, fairer fare regime. But fixing the system depends on Network Rail raising its game too; thus, pushing for the devolution of responsibilities for the development, design and delivery of Scottish infrastructure projects to Holyrood must be a priority.

If the SNP wants to tout the country’s rail service as world-leading, then it really has to get a firm grip on the companies delivering it. Until it does, it will remain more Trumpton than Tokyo.