Insight: Blame the wrong kind of trains for ScotRail woes

Is Abellio nearing the end of the line now failures in its rolling stock have become a major cause of Scotland's rail disruption, asks Alastair Dalton

‘I have quite a stressful job, but the most stressful part of my day is travelling – and it should not be.”

Robert Keenan only manages to board his train if the doors are right in front of him when it stops. He hasn’t regularly had a seat for years, and his trains home are cancelled so often he has racked up large taxi bills to collect his son from nursery in time.

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The Musselburgh commuter is among thousands of ScotRail passengers who have seen things get worse rather than better, nearly four years after incoming Dutch operator Abellio pledged to “work every day to earn the faith that has been shown in us”.

Robert Keenan at Musselburgh with one of the new Hitachi trains. Picture: Jon Savage

Keenan, an IT manager for the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, is so fed up he has even thought of buying a scooter.

He said: “It’s toes on the edge of the platform, hoping the train will stop with the doors where I’m standing. I don’t remember when I last got a seat other than on Christmas Eve. I normally can’t even get beyond the vestibule.”

If the experience has been stressful for Keenan, it has been a nightmare for Abellio. It is now on its third ScotRail managing director and its third improvement plan, and has been threatened by ministers with losing the contract because of poor performance.

However, the latest cause of Keenan’s distress has not been the traditional disruption from trains breaking down or track or signalling faults.

Alex Hynes with one of the refurbished High Speed Trains. Picture: Jon Savage

Instead, it is largely because Japanese bullet train builders Hitachi and US refitter Wabtec have failed to deliver nearly 100 new or refurbished trains to ScotRail on time.

Add to that an overtime ban by the RMT, the largest rail union, and the train operator has been faced with a huge training backlog, with some 60 trains a day being cancelled so drivers and conductors could familiarise themselves with the new trains, some running on new routes.

However, many passengers couldn’t care less about what lies behind such disruption and see it as just the latest incompetence from an industry that seems unable to cope with any hiccup.

The truth is that parts of the Scottish network were already bursting at the seams, with often extremely disruptive work required to make improvements.

This has also come as growing numbers of people are taking the train, with nearly 100 million journeys in Scotland a year and rising.

Abellio won a ten-year franchise to run ScotRail from 2015, pledging two new fleets of trains to combat overcrowding. But putting them into service has taken far longer than anyone expected, with bizarre holdups along the way.

What could possibly go wrong with ordering a new train from a company with the reputation of Hitachi? A past ScotRail chief assured sceptics its brand new design would work “out of the box” – even though ScotRail’s previous three new fleets hadn’t.

It turned out, as Scotland on Sunday revealed last year, that drivers couldn’t see signals properly through the cab windscreen, so it had to be redesigned and replaced.

Only half the 70 trains, which should all have been delivered by last month, have arrived, and they have suffered intermittent faults, such as to their doors. The latest caused disruption on the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line on Friday.

Hitachi said the last of the class 385 trains would leave the production line this month and it was “confident” the whole fleet would be delivered by May.

A spokesman blamed delays to the electrification of the Edinburgh-Glasgow main line, along with “supply chain development” and the windscreens.

ScotRail’s other newly acquired fleet are 40-year-old design classics – former “High Speed Trains” which ran between London and western England.

Here a problem has arisen with refurbishment firm Wabtec running so late with the upgrades that not only are just ten of the 26 trains yet in service, but all but one remain in their “classic” state, complete with slam doors and toilets that flush on to tracks.

Angel Trains, which owns the fleet, said the second refurbished train is planned to be in Scotland by Wednesday, with the rest by the end of the year – a year late.

A spokeswoman said: “When stripping out the carriages for refurbishment, it [Wabtec] identified further work that could be readily and more easily undertaken at this stage, avoiding extended maintenance downtimes and cost once the trains are in passenger service. Additionally, the engineering design and complexity of work has proved more challenging than anticipated by Wabtec.”

To compound the problems, the trains that these will replace have now left ScotRail because their leases have expired. The upshot has been that many commuters returning to work after the festive break have had to endure the same old overcrowded trains – along with a fare increase of up to 3.2 per cent. Yesterday, 33 trains ran with fewer carriages than planned, and there were around 75 on Friday.

Of course, trains are only half the story, and traditionally far more disruption has been caused by problems with the bits that don’t move, like track, signals and overhead wires.

Such faults have been the focus of two improvement plans since 2016 to improve punctuality, and after the first, things did start to get better.

However, this was reversed last year by a combination of further infrastructure problems, the heaviest snowfall for 20 years, then record temperatures which threatened to buckle tracks.

The second – Donovan – plan last year, appears to be finally producing results, with figures on Friday showing the second monthly performance increase in a row. Significantly, delays caused by ScotRail are now higher than Network Rail’s – 46 versus 34 per cent.

An independent assessment of the plan last month was positive, although it questioned whether ministers’ target of 92.5 per cent of trains arriving within five minutes of schedule would be finally hit in two years’ time.

It hasn’t reached that annual average since 2013, has remained at 87.3 per cent since November and hasn’t improved for more than a year before that.

But punctuality varies significantly across Scotland – from more than 90 per cent over the past month for off-peak trains around Glasgow to 77 per cent for peak and off-peak trains services around Edinburgh, and less than 69 per cent for trains between those cities and Aberdeen and Inverness.

While lucky commuters on the Neilston line south of Glasgow enjoyed 96 per cent punctuality last month, Wick passengers endured only 75 per cent.

There are also signs Network Rail, which is part of a close-working alliance with ScotRail, is getting its act together.

Figures published on Friday showed performance improved in the past month despite the cancellations.

The same day, fines imposed on ScotRail for failing tough service quality inspections fell by a quarter to £790,000 in September-December. However, ScotRail passed in only 15 of 38 areas, with the lowest scores being for missing seat reservations and litter.

Scottish Labour transport spokesman Colin Smyth is unimpressed. “This is another set of appalling performance figures and Abellio are yet again well below the targets they are paid to meet as part of the franchise,” he said.

“Passengers facing delayed, cancelled and overcrowded trains every day are sick and tired of this failing franchise and angry that for months the SNP government have turned a blind eye to this poor performance.”

ScotRail sits in the middle of the performance table compared with Britain’s other 22 train operators. But the most punctual operator, Merseyrail, at over 95 per cent, has a much smaller network.

ScotRail is also mid-table in the passenger satisfaction ratings, at 84 per cent, down from a high of 90 per cent last achieved in 2017.

ScotRail Alliance managing director Alex Hynes insists the worst is behind it. “We have been able to dramatically reduce the number of cancellations,” he told Scotland on Sunday. “There were up to 60 training-related cancellations per day last month and fewer than five each day this week. Underlying performance has become significantly better.”

Further planned measures include cutting delays by getting passengers on and off trains faster. Roving staff will use microphones to chivvy people along like on the London Underground.

Professor Iain Docherty of the University of Glasgow, one of Scotland’s leading rail experts, who is also a non-executive director of the ScotRail operating board, said the company had also suffered from late-running projects such as the electrification of the Edinburgh-Glasgow main line.

He said: “Rail services in Scotland have probably suffered less recent disruption compared with other parts of the GB network where significant investment is being delivered.

“But it is important to understand why the situation has been difficult to manage. The franchising system assumes an intensive period of investment and change at the beginning of each contract. Late delivery of enhanced infrastructure by Network Rail, and of new and refurbished trains from the international supply chain, has left almost no time for ScotRail to carry out tasks like testing and training that it needs to do. The complexity of the current industry structure has come back to bite.”

Transport secretary Michael Matheson, who warned Abellio last week it could face losing its contract if the latest improvement scheme doesn’t work, told Scotland on Sunday: “There’s no doubt ScotRail must improve and the issue of a remedial plan notice underlines this.

“Ripping up the contract is not the answer. Fundamental issues still need resolved regardless of who runs the railways.” Matheson pointed out that Network Rail was part of the UK government while Scottish ministers controlled ScotRail.

He said: “We need the powers to be able to consider all options for a truly integrated railway; one with shared ambitions and incentives which are sharply focused on the needs and priorities of Scotland’s rail users.

“That’s why I continue to push the UK government for further, meaningful devolution through the Williams rail review.”

However, control of day-to-day Network Rail operations is already in the hands of ministers. Hynes is its employee and its Scottish head, as managing director of the ScotRail Alliance.

Scottish Conservatives transport spokesman Jamie Greene observed: “Crucially, the fact that 46 per cent of failures was attributed to ScotRail in last period has completely torn apart the SNP’s argument that Scotland’s rail woes are because of the UK government. “They’ll blame everybody else for their failings, including the weather.”