Is Scottish Government out to get ScotRail? – Alastair Dalton

Scotrail Alliance managing director Alex Hynes faced two very different audiences this week. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
Scotrail Alliance managing director Alex Hynes faced two very different audiences this week. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament
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It was a tale of two cities – and two entirely different perspectives on the enduring saga of ScotRail’s fortunes.

At an industry conference in Glasgow on Tuesday, the assembled throng heard Scottish rail chiefs paint a glowing picture of growth, fuelled by new trains and faster journeys, with a host of potential further improvements to come.

The following day in Edinburgh, at the other end of the main line between the cities, those same rail chiefs faced a very different audience – a grilling from irritated MSPs over ScotRail’s parlous performance.

In that conference suite in the west, the problem was glossed over in the platform presentations as the “challenge of change”. Over in a Scottish Parliament committee room in the east, with politicians sensing ScotRail is at risk of losing its franchise, it seemed like near the end of days for the operator.

In fact, both portrayals are true – a reflection of the fiendishly complicated and interconnected world of Scotland’s railways, which are carrying nearly twice as many passengers as 20 years ago, on a struggling network that still has Victorian-era signalling on some lines.

READ MORE: ScotRail won’t hit punctuality target until end of 2021

Major improvements like new trains, and faster and more frequent services, are happening, but these have caused no end of grief for ScotRail and its Network Rail partners, which run the tracks. That has come on top of the railways being at the mercy of everything from the Beast from the East snowfall and last summer’s record temperatures, to suicides, trespassers and industrial action.

It just so happens that performance has improved in the west, where 90.8 per cent of trains at Glasgow Central are punctual, while it has lagged in the east, with Edinburgh Waverley’s current score just 81.5 per cent.

Figures like that show most passengers do not experience delays or cancelled trains, but politicians quite rightly believe one in five disrupted journeys is not good enough.

ScotRail Alliance managing director Alex Hynes may have been accurate when he told MSPs three times that more trains are arriving on time than ever before – because more trains are running.

But that’s still pretty outrageous spin when overall punctuality has hardly improved for nearly two years, remains way below target and isn’t expected to reach it until the end of 2021.

READ MORE: Threat to ScotRail if it fails to meet remedial plan targets

Ministers are also losing patience after seeing ScotRail introduce two “improvement” plans since 2016 which have produced no sustained performance boost. But since then, ScotRail has become mired in a new set of problems – the significant and far-reaching knock-on effects of its two new train fleets being delivered late.

However, this latest setback, felt chiefly on commuter lines into Edinburgh, has given Transport Secretary Michael Matheson the chance to ratchet up the pressure on ScotRail by taking it to the next level – a “remedial” plan, which carries the penalty of loss of the franchise if its conditions are not met.

The minister told MSPs he was “putting as much pressure as possible” on ScotRail. With a second remedial plan also ordered – over poor passenger satisfaction ratings – it’s as if Transport Scotland mandarins are leafing through the 674-page franchise agreement to see what else they can get the operator on. The railways are so unpredictable, you wouldn’t want to bet either way on how things will turn out – especially when politicians are impatient for simple and rapid solutions to complex problems.