ScotRail: Can Scottish ministers seize the opportunity presented by the train crisis? – Alastair Dalton

There always seems to be a crisis on the railways.

Poor performance, big delays to the delivery of new train fleets and the latest franchise being terminated early are just some of ScotRail’s recent calamities.

Then there is the far-reaching extreme weather threat that appears to have caused the horrific fatal derailment near Stonehaven exactly a year ago.

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But while that challenge will continue to loom in the background, a more immediate crisis is brewing over the huge financial cost to the railways of the Covid pandemic.

While some parts of the economy shut down during the lockdowns, ScotRail’s trains pretty much ran as normal – a previously loss-making but hugely socially beneficial service operating at times with virtually no passengers, but also with no staff lay-offs.

Cue a massive increase in public funding, which has almost doubled support to £1 billion a year, with the added injection likely to be needed for some time since passenger levels have still only reached 50 per cent of normal.

If that’s not a big enough headache, industrial strife – never far away on the railways – appears to have reached a new height at ScotRail, with the various current disputes topped by conductors striking over being paid less than drivers for working on days off, which has brought most Sunday trains to a standstill since March.

That’s pretty ironic at a time when people are being encouraged to travel by train again, and Saturdays have become ScotRail’s busiest day.

The Scottish Government will take over the ScotRail franchise from Dutch firm Abellio next April but has been effectively running it during the Covid pandemic with the huge increase in its support funding. Picture: John Devlin

On top of that, there’s discontent among pretty much the whole workforce at not being offered a pay rise this year without productivity improvements.

But that’s perhaps unsurprising considering the Scottish government now holds the purse strings and the extra millions they’ve decided to shell out to keep ScotRail operating through the pandemic.

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To add to the unions’ anger, they have seized on a report by Scotland’s leading transport academic on how ScotRail can recover from its Covid crisis, choosing to highlight a few lines in the 11-page document that refer to potential service cuts, ticket office closures and retiring staff not being replaced.

All ScotRail's diesel trains are due to be scrapped by 2035 in favour of electric and hydrogen-powered replacements. Picture: John Devlin
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Its author, Professor Iain Docherty of the University of Stirling, has been warning for months about the impending fallout after the vast coronavirus rail funding increase, telling a conference last November: "There are going to be really, really hard decisions about how much public money to continue to pay to run services.”

However, he is hardly some latter-day Dr Beeching, the notorious 1960s rail axe man.

Instead, Professor Docherty described ScotRail’s predicament as a “classic crisis/opportunity dilemma”.

He is effectively saying, yes, it may need to cut its cloth according to its coat in the short term, but the longer-term prospects are far brighter. That’s because of the Scottish government’s target to cut car use by 20 per cent within a decade while also scrapping all diesel trains.

There’s also the opportunity to switch commuter services to other trips since many people are expected to travel to work less often.

Professor Docherty said that could double rail demand if overall travel recovers to pre-pandemic levels.

Ministers have effectively run ScotRail through Covid, and will formally take over next April.

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All eyes will be on them to see whether they can seize that opportunity from the crisis.

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