Scotland’s Railways: The Story That Keeps On Giving was the title of a presentation I gave to a rail group this summer.
Of all the types of transport I cover, it provides easily the most plentiful source of news – good and bad. That’s perhaps because the rail network occupies a separate environment, if not, with its many quirks, a parallel universe.
I explained to the audience, who included ScotRail Alliance managing director Alex Hynes, that while there will always be negative stories about the railways, there have been some spectacular own goals by the industry in generating its own bad publicity.
The examples I gave included current ScotRail operator Abellio instructing its staff in 2015 to cut its predecessor’s logos from their uniforms because new ones weren’t ready.
I also highlighted the row over previous operator First shrinking its coffee cups because it could not meet the demand for hot drinks. The then managing director was livid to hear this had happened without his knowledge.
I’m sorry to say ScotRail has done it again.
You’d think that just after announcing a fares increase, amid dozens of daily cancellations because of staff shortages and industrial action, and while suffering the worst punctuality for years, would not be the best time to create more bad news.
But no, the train operator confirmed on Monday it was scrapping its Kids Go Free promotion for five to 15-year-olds travelling with an adult. It will be replaced from next month by Kids for a Quid, a flat-fare £1 return instead.
ScotRail said the number of eligible children would increase from two to four per adult. It will also be extended to season ticket and flexipass holders, some of whom had apparently complained about having to buy another ticket so their children could travel free.
Opposition parties and unions had a field day – Labour launched a petition while the Transport and Salaried Staffs’ Association accused ScotRail of “totally Scrooge-like behaviour”.
Apart from the ill-judged timing, loss-making ScotRail’s decision appears to something of a gamble financially.
It may prompt season ticket holders to take their kids by train, but introducing a charge – even £1 – could equally dissuade others from going by rail. That could be particularly so on shorter trips around Glasgow, where most ScotRail journeys are made, and where even adult fares cost only a few pounds.
However, the biggest issue with the change is that it flies in the face of Scottish Government policy of getting people out of their cars.
Transport secretary Michael Matheson regards taking the train as “active travel”, along with walking and cycling, because it also involves at least one of those.
Significantly, he did not defend ScotRail when questioned about the change by MSPs on Tuesday – and said he understood people’s concerns.
Children should become familiar with public transport as potential future users. I know of primary school teachers surprised to find few of their pupils have travelled by train, even at a school close to a busy Glasgow station. Some at a recent ten-year-old’s birthday party had never been on a bus.
A decade ago, First ScotRail became the first UK train operator to offer free accompanied child travel daily. Abellio ScotRail now says it may be the only one that does. So if it’s building “the best railway Scotland has ever had”, it’ll be no better than anywhere else.