Leader comment: ScotRail buys time but clock is still ticking

The latest performance figures for train punctuality in Scotland show that some progress has been made since public and political dissatisfaction reached a peak towards the end of 2016.
ScotRail punctuality has improved but not by enough to meet all targets. Picture: Getty ImagesScotRail punctuality has improved but not by enough to meet all targets. Picture: Getty Images
ScotRail punctuality has improved but not by enough to meet all targets. Picture: Getty Images

A breakdown between Haymarket and Waverley stations in Edinburgh virtually paralysed the network in central Scotland with its knock-on consequences for other services, and although the incident in itself did not represent dismal failure on the part of the operator, it was a focal point for rising passenger discontent, which also includes important issues such as overcrowding on carriages, a matter not covered by punctuality statistics.

The figures show that ScotRail is moving in the right direction, and the operators point to their ranking as the second best performing large operator in the UK. This effectively says ‘you might think we’re bad but we’re far from the worst’ - but that persepctive isn’t going to earn much sympathy from commuters who simply want a seat, a ticket at a reasonable price, and a train that will reach its destination at the advertised time.

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The reality is that the improvements are not enough, and appear to be slow. When discontent was at its highest last month, transport minister Humza Yousaf made it quite clear that improvement was essential, with Abellio’s franchise contract at stake. It wasn’t good enough, he said.

The response we have seen is positive, but it does not amount to what we might have hoped for after being put on the spot by a government minister. This is disappointing, but it would be premature to lambast another failure to hit targets when movement is in the right direction.

Even political opponents acknowledged yesterday that the transport minister asked ScotRail to hit their performance targets by the end of March, and there is still time - over two months - to achieve this.

Having said that, there could be complications ahead which would be bad news for the operator. Poor weather has arrived this week, and it would take a stroke of luck for this to be the worst we will see before the winter is out. Delays on the railway are to be expected, simply because of the time of year, and this will not help ScotRail hit its March target.

Abellio has bought time, at least for this month. But what we also need more evidence of, alongside improved punctuality, is a genuine easing of overcrowding, and improved communications when unavoidable delays occur. The worst part of the Edinburgh breakdown delay was the confusion and lack of information regarding affected services. A delay outwith ScotRail’s control cannot be laid at the operator’s door, but failings on capacity and information are the full responsibility of the operator. These are the basics of train service provision for any rail operator, anywhere.

So for the meantime, ScotRail lives to fight another day, even if discontent continues to rumble. But the clock is ticking on performance, and unless we see the required improvement over the next two months, then the transport minister will have to step in again.