RADICAL fare cuts to fill empty seats and tough new targets so more trains arrive on time have been pledged in a new Scottish Government blueprint for the ScotRail franchise.
• New ScotRail contract includes cutting fares to fill empty seats
• £100 million allocated to improve journey times and punctuality
The £5 billion plan set out by transport minister Keith Brown includes a longer contract to run ScotRail services, a separate franchise for the sleeper service and fare regulation designed to protect commuters and rural passengers.
Mr Brown said wifi would be extended across the ScotRail network within seven years, following the launch of a long-awaited pilot on the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line on Monday.
Smart ticketing is also due to be introduced by 2024. However, lack of ambition in the plan – most of which follows current spending levels – was widely criticised.
Mr Brown also raised fears the flagship project would be delayed – by refusing to confirm a £1bn electrification programme that will cut Edinburgh-Glasgow journeys to 35 minutes would be completed on schedule in 2016.
He also appeared to have shelved a raft of controversial measures floated in a consultation last year, such as hiking fares, making commuters stand longer and extending journey times to improve punctuality.
The minister had previously ruled out other options in the consultation, such as shutting stations, axing sleeper trains and making cross-Border passengers change at Edinburgh.
Labour infrastructure spokesman Richard Baker said the announcement represented “the end of a protracted climbdown”.
Mr Brown said the next franchise – currently held by Aberdeen-based FirstGroup – would run for ten years from 2014, with a “break point” after five years in case improvement targets were not met.
The current contract, which started in 2004 for seven years, was extended by three years after a new deal was struck between FirstGroup and ministers.
Mr Brown confirmed reports that ScotRail’s Caledonian Sleeper services would be franchised separately – for a 15-year term.
This is to capitalise on the £100 million pledged by the UK and Scottish Governments to upgrade the ageing overnight trains, which connect Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Inverness, Fort William with London.
Mr Brown signalled major fare cuts on off-peak and little-used trains, following last month’s 65 per cent reductions in fares on the Stranraer line to replace passengers lost when the Belfast ferry moved to Cairnryan.
He said: “We will also look to the next franchisee to increase passenger numbers through innovative fares packages. We need the franchisee to make use of available capacity on off-peak and lightly-used services.”
A spokeswoman for the Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency later added: “We are developing a package which could lead to significant fare reductions, particularly in respect of off-peak services that can be implemented at nil or relatively little net additional cost.”
Mr Brown said punctuality targets would increase and information would be published about the proportion of trains arriving bang on time. Currently, published figures show only the proportion arriving within five or ten minutes of schedule.
The Scotsman’s sister paper Scotland on Sunday had to request “right time” arrivals under Freedom of Information legislation after Network Rail refused to provide it.
The main Edinburgh-Glasgow route could be among those in line for tighter targets, since trains on the 50-minute journey are still classed as “on time” if they arrive ten minutes late.
Compensation payments to ScotRail for losses caused by strikes will be reviewed after calls from the unions.
Mr Brown said: “We are reviewing the clauses with a view to developing an alternative approach that is fair to both operators and the workforce.”
The minister said the Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme would have to be compatible with high-speed rail, even though this is not expected to reach Scotland for decades.
He told MSPs the first stage – electrification of the Cumbernauld line – would be completed in time for the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, but did not respond to a question about the whole scheme being finished in 2016.
Transport Scotland said new electric trains would be delivered in time.
Transport think tank the Scottish Association for Public Transport criticised the lack of extra services and said Mr Brown failed to mention new trains to replace the “inappropriate mix of rolling stock”, especially the need for higher-quality carriages on long-distance routes.
Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Jim Hume criticised the “break point” in the franchise, which he described as an “independence get-out clause” – in a reference to the forthcoming referendum. He said it would “fail to bring the stability that passengers need”.
Alex Johnstone, his Conservative opposite number, expressed fears the sleeper franchise would be too small to sustain.
Patrick Harvie, for the Greens, said: “What a complete lack of ambition the SNP government shows for our railways. These plans are pathetic. No smart ticketing for 12 years? What is this? The steam age?”