Sarah Boyack: Let’s put wheels in motion for a sustainable rail policy

OVER the last few months the Scottish Government and Network Rail have been consulting on the future of rail services in Scotland.

This is a crucial time for rail services with the ScotRail contract up for renegotiation and a review of the funding arrangements for Network Rail. These changes offer an opportunity for the Scottish Government to negotiate a better deal for passengers and to improve rail services.

Last year, ScotRail carried almost 80 million commuters, day-trippers and tourists across the rail network. Recently added services like the Airdrie to Bathgate line have shown that there is an appetite among the public to use rail services to access work and social opportunities in Edinburgh.

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In order to achieve that however, people need to be encouraged to take the train and the recent trend has not been positive. At the start of this year, the cost of rail tickets increased by six per cent, taking the price of an annual ticket between Glasgow and Edinburgh to £3380. This is a massive expense especially when passengers do not see any improvement in service.

Above all, people want a service that is quick, reliable, comfortable and delivers value for money. Making that a reality is the challenge that the Scottish Government and other stakeholders must address.

In Edinburgh there are signs of investment. Passengers cannot fail to notice the improvement works at Waverley station while there are also improvements coming for Haymarket as part of the Edinburgh to Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP).

At a recent meeting with Network Rail I got a chance to hear about proposals for Haymarket station. For me a key issue is integration. For many people travelling to work in Edinburgh the way that rail services link in with other transport options is important. Some want to drive a portion of their journey and would like to see park-and-ride facilities expanded. Others want to see better integration between rail and bus services. Similarly we need better links for cyclists, with stations accessible from bike routes, parking at stations and space for bikes on board. Then there are fundamental issues such as accessibility – whether it is for disabled or elderly people or for passengers struggling with buggies or luggage. What these concerns point to is a greater need to ensure that rail services are considered not just in isolation but as part of a wider transport vision that places the needs of passengers at its heart.

As part of the wider EGIP consultation process, people in Edinburgh and the Lothians have highlighted a number of possible service improvements, including calls for a station at Abbeyhill and the electrification and reintroduction of passenger services on the South Suburban Line. These proposals have generated strong support. We now need proper investigation of the costs and benefits.

The Scottish Parliament’s Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee recently published its report on the renewal of the Scottish passenger rail franchise. The report argued for simplified fare structures, improved monitoring and efficiency of services and a more integrated approach. The committee also recommended that the franchise should be awarded for a longer period. If this were to happen it is vital that a balance is struck between transparency in the process and accountability for those running our vital train services.

The Scottish Government was rightly criticised by many for some of the proposals in its initial consultation. Suggestions that there be fewer train services, longer travel times and more changes for passengers on long-distance routes would be a big step backwards. They would also cause massive inconvenience to local passengers commuting to Edinburgh.

The consultation also sought views on the possibility of raising fares for peak-time services and limiting the number of people on board. I am concerned that this would make rail travel for people travelling to work in Edinburgh prohibitively expensive.

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Thankfully the Scottish Government abandoned proposals that would have seen cross-border services terminating in Edinburgh rather than continuing further north. We need to see continued support for cross-border rail services, particularly sleeper services.

Since devolution, the number of people using the railway has grown steadily. That’s because of sustained investment, new trains, new stations, more support for safety and a huge improvement brought about by use of information technology. This has made our railways more competitive with cars and has reduced the amount of transport-related CO2 emissions.

This is the sort of sustainable transport policy we should be following but the proposals being pursued by the Scottish Government will do little to progress it. Instead they will merely result in fewer trains, longer, more expensive journeys and a less convenient service.

I’m hoping that the Minister has listened to the arguments and is prepared to put our railways on a stronger footing. For Edinburgh our future economic growth and environmental prosperity demand that he does so.

• Sarah Boyack is a Labour MSP for the Lothians