Leader comment: Runaway row over a broken down train

The breakdown of a rush-hour train at a busy section of the network is not in itself proof of poor performance.
The breakdown of a rush-hour train at a busy section of the network is not in itself proof of poor performance.
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A train breaking down on Scotland’s busiest line has resulted in a “mea culpa” apology from Scotland’s First Minister and a call for a Scottish Government minister’s head.

There is no doubt the rush hour chaos yesterday caused by a train breaking down between Edinburgh’s Waverley and Haymarket stations caused considerable delays and knock-on problems for frustrated passengers across many parts of the country.

But while trains have been known to break down in the past, this particular incident, described by Nicola Sturgeon as an “extraordinary set of circumstances”, quickly escalated into a political row with Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale lambasting ScotRail operator Abellio for their service delivery.

The Dutch rail operator has often been targeted by Scottish Labour over a list of misdemeanours including a £483,000 fine for falling below accepted standards for trains and stations. There has also been much publicity given to a petition calling on Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf to make the rail operator’s managers improve train services or remove the contract from them.

Abellio was awarded the ten-year franchise, worth up to £6 billion, in 2014 and began running train services the following year, but there is scope for the government to cancel its contract half-way through if it fails to meet its obligations.

Aslef, the train drivers’ union, last night called for Ms Sturgeon to sack Mr Yousaf, accusing him of “standing by” while Abellio ScotRail takes “Scotland’s passengers and taxpayers for a ride”.

While the broken down train has a lot of political weight resting it on, we should take a step back to get things in perspective.

Ms Sturgeon said the government accepts responsibility for what happened yesterday. But as we all know, trains will always break down – in common with all vehicles - and it is impossible to appoint an operator who can guarantee this will never happen. And when a train breaks down and blocks a line, there is very rarely a contingency available. Diversions are for the road network only.

Unless Aslef can provide precise information that the incident was due to deliberate negligence or incompetence on the part of Abellio, then its demand should be ignored as political opportunism, as a Labour-supporting union backs the Labour Party’s campaign against Abellio ScotRail. The M25 is at gridlock every day. Should the UK government’s transport secretary resign every day?

This was an incident in isolation rather than representative of what happens every day. Last month it was reported that a total of 89.9 per cent of ScotRail services either arrive on time or are less than five minutes late - 0.7 points below the 90.3 per cent target.

We should be judging Abellio ScotRail on a bigger picture than a train breaking down on a key section of the network. They must be held to account for their overall performance, but this unfortunate incident was a perfect storm for the rail operator - not a defining issue or a resignation matter.