Inside Transport: Scotland’s railway must restore its reputation

Major Network Rail schemes are nearly �400 million over budget, a report claims
Major Network Rail schemes are nearly �400 million over budget, a report claims
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If you’re looking for a dog to give a bad name, it’s currently Scotland’s railways.

The pressure is very much on train operator ScotRail and track owner Network Rail, with every pitfall magnified in the current febrile atmosphere.

First there was the political hysteria over punctuality, which managed to exaggerate the figures even beyond the shockingly poor timekeeping on some lines.

Then there were the latest round of fines for below-par quality standards, with the Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency failing to get its message across that things weren’t actually getting worse overall.

More surprisingly, the spotlight then switched to Network Rail, with an accountants’ report commissioned by Transport Scotland appearing to show its five current major projects were all way over budget - to the tune of nearly £400 million.

I say that because the body’s past record on such schemes north of the Border - as opposed to in England - has been pretty exemplary.

It has completed big construction works on time and on budget, such as the Airdrie-Bathgate line, Borders Railway (the mess of the rest of the project was caused by others), and overhauls of Waverley and Haymarket stations in Edinburgh.

That record started to blemish in the summer of last year when it was announced that electrification of the Edinburgh-Glasgow main line would be completed seven months late, next July.

However, for the other projects examined by Ernst & Young, I’m told there may be more than meets the eye. They are the upgrades of the Inverness to Aberdeen and Perth lines, and the electrification of a secondary Edinburgh-Glasgow line via Shotts, and routes between the two cities and Alloa and Dunblane.

It could be that the extraordinary cost hikes in the report - some are double the previous figures - are actually because of an ill-advised decision to publish back-of-a-fag-packet type estimates way before they were fully calculated.

Time will tell if that’s true, or whether it proves to be a smokescreen. But lessons don’t appear to have been learned from the sorry saga of several previous rail schemes which ended up hugely over budget or scrapped, albeit ones that didn’t involve Network Rail.

Eight years ago, public spending watchdogs Audit Scotland investigation into the Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine line, axed Glasgow airport rail link and other schemes concluded that inaccurate early cost estimates undermine projects.

While the truth about Network Rail’s cost will keep Audit Scotland busy for their next report, the impact of any delays to the latest projects will be more keenly felt by rail passengers than ever before.

That’s because record numbers of trips - more than 90 million a year - are being made on a network a shadow of its former scope.

Because so many other routes feed into the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line, the electrification work will continue to widely disrupt off-peak trains until at least March - on top of the overcrowding many travellers already suffer.

Completion of this and other projects cannot come soon enough - along with two new train fleets over the next two years - just to cope with growing demand on Scotland’s booming railway network. Network Rail - even though now in a “deep alliance” partnership with ScotRail - will also be desperate to restore its reputation.