A vision for Scotland’s Railways

I wrote earlier this year, that the SNP didn’t seem to get Railways. The last forward planning document from the Scottish Government was published in 2006, when Labour was in power. The ScotRail franchise comes up for renewal in 2014, and Transport Scotland, the governments transport agency has issued a consultation document giving options for the future of rail services in Scotland. Those expected a forward thinking positive vision for rail have been let down once again.

The headline in the Daily Record says it all – slower, fuller and dearer. Although this is only a consultation, seasoned observers of the bureaucratic machine will know that the Government has already made its mind up, and one of the options within this document is what it wants. And what it wants are trains which are slower (“to help meet punctuality targets”), fuller (overcrowding does not mean extra carriages) and dearer (“ensuring the rail network remains financially sustainable”).

Rather than services being expanded, it seems that at least one of the Caledonian Sleeper services is for the chop (“removing …. financial support and reducing the provision”); while cross border trains will be terminated at Edinburgh. This last suggestion is particularly galling, seeing as the SNP have campaigned vigorously in defence of such trains in the past. The arguments Mike Weir made then are true now, and it is shameful that it is his Government which is proposing these cut backs.

Instead of looking at ways of increasing the number of stations, serving parts of the population which need rail services, mention is made of reducing the number stations! The examples given of urban stations in Glasgow within a mile of each other is poor, as these are designed to serve commuters, while the discussion on those stations which are lightly used does not mention the appalling service these stations receive. By providing additional services, these stations will pay for themselves, but this is not even considered an option.

While the desire to see Wi-Fi fitted on trains, little thought has been given to electrification providing scope to provide better trains, especially on those lines with rolling stock near to life expiry. Although the document says that Leasing companies are more willing to provide new electric trains, it does not follow this through by suggesting the new franchise could extend electrification, acquire the new electric trains and use those units displaced to replace the oldest trains on the network. Surely this shows a massive lack of joined up thinking?

One of the biggest changes which have been suggested in the past is the use of longer franchises in order to help companies invest in improvements. It is no coincidence that the most successful franchise, Chiltern Railways, received a 20 year franchise in 2002. Not only is Chiltern amongst the most punctual of operators, but it also has one of the highest levels of customer satisfaction, as well as delivering hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investment which simply wouldn’t have been possible without the length of franchise.  However, we are not to be allowed to enjoy this in Scotland, as “We are mindful that the coming years are likely to bring significant organisational and operational change across the industry as … there may also be, particularly for Scotland, significant constitutional changes”. So it seems that because Scotland “may” become independent in the future, we can’t have a long term franchise agreement to provide benefits to passengers now. The option of a mutual or co-operative solution is mentioned, if only to dismiss it by talk of the need for large performance bonds.

What we needed was a positive vision for the future of Scotland’s Railways. What we got was the promise of a poorer, more expensive system. It seems that not only do the SNP don’t get Railways, they positively hate them. Now who’s talking Scotland down?

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