How to Run a Railroad

We apologise to readers here in search of soaring rhetoric on broadminded topics; today you have come to the wrong place. This blog is not just about things local to East Lothian but written wearing the tasteless anorak of a train spotter.

The recent stramash about Virgin vs First on the WCML franchise is actually about First’s penchant for capturing markets, then milking the hell out of them—as with First Edinburgh’s buses. This is equally apparent than in their tenure of ScotRail, in which they expand only when someone else tells them and pays for it (e.g. Airdrie/Bathgate, Alloa). Otherwise, they’ve shown no vision to invest in growing rail services for the long haul.

The recent Scottish Parliament rammy over whether the £1bn EGIP (see our earlier blog) was phased or gutted was notable in that ScotRail—who should have been raising merry hell that its premier line was still not electrified—said nary a public peep on the matter. Other than simply cashing in on passenger numbers that are rising anyway, they show little interest in growing their future. They should.

Let’s take an example of a 40-year-story of a rail service (once pronounced dead and now among the most profitable) as how business can be made in the least likely circumstances and almost despite the company that benefits from it. The North Berwick-Edinburgh service dates from 1850, seeing such dizzy luxuries as the Lothian Coast Express in its Edwardian heyday. By the 1960’s new diesel multiple units, frequent services through Edinburgh to Corstorphine and closing half the intermediate stations didn’t halt decline in passengers. In 1968, the dreaded closure order came down from British Rail.

As with dozens of casualties of the Beeching axe, that should have been it. But EL County Council, supported by N. Berwick and Prestonpans Town Councils (an unholy alliance if there ever was one) commissioned a study that showed only £36k would be saved, rubbishing BR’s financial analysis that they would save £66k—almost twice that. John P. Macintosh MP marched this study into Barbara Castle’s office, with the result that she was persuaded to give a reprieve and a £13k subsidy. Locals 1; BR 0.

The downside was a skeletal service; two commuter trains each way on weekdays and three shopping trains each way on Saturdays. But the punters used them—so much so that they were overcrowded and a lobby of BR to double the commuter trains from 3-car to 6-car units succeeded. Locals 2; BR 0. Then Macintosh got behind a lobby by schoolkids for an earlier train to return from Edinburgh and a new 4:30pm brought the score to Locals 3; BR 0.

Not all was success. A very reasonable campaign to do away with platform staff and have train staff collect tickets (as they do now) was turned down because BR thought “not all fares could be collected on such a short journey.” Efforts to have extra excursion trains were stymied by all track and signaling, bar a single “6-mile siding” having been removed made such working impossible. Hmmm Locals 3; BR 2.

The local North Berwick Negotiating Committee continued to badger BR for various improvements: peak through running to Haymarket restarted in 1979 (4:2) and a daily midday train was introduced in 1984 (5:2). This resulted in BR admitting that the line was on the verge of profitability and that, after 15 years of doubt, its future had become so secure that they were using it as an experiment in local accountability. This was just as well as the old station buildings at NB were succumbing to decades of neglect and were demolished to leave a single short platform. Final score: Locals 5; BR 3.

However, this greatly improved available parking and a growth in residents meant more commuters than ever were piling on the trains and the introduction of the first pay-trains in Scotland made the line even more viable. By this time, traffic congestion in Edinburgh drove ever more people onto the trains. Sunday trains were introduced, then evening trains on a seasonal and then year-round basis. By 1988, introduction of the class 150 “Sprinters” restored a full 7-day service, hourly between 7am and midnight.

Real growth came after 1991 when, similar to the provision of electric overhead catenaries on the Lanark line spur off the WCML, the NB branch was electrified along with the Berwick-to-Edinburgh ECML after some strenuous lobbying by locals and Lothian Regional Council (who met half the £1.3m cost), as well as supplying new stations at Musselburgh and Wallyford. The ‘new’ trains were refurbished class 305 ‘slam-door’ 4-car trains from Essex. But they were fast, quiet and, despite initial teething troubles, grew the service by offering larger capacity and easy entry/exit.

After the class 305’s soldiered on well past their sell-by date, a recent upgrade has finally given the line modern class 180 new trains fit for the frequent and popular service it now provides. Not only does the 6-day (Su – Fr) hourly service run 22 trains between 6am and midnight but a Saturday 30-minute frequency is now well used, as are extra late trains run during the Festival and Fringe by the Sea.

Whereas the original 70’s service focussed on the commuter and didn’t break 50,000 fares annually, shoppers and casual business, as well a a heavy counter-flow of students to the new QMU and visitors to the seaside and MoF at East Fortune took it past 1,000,000 by 2005. As a rail revival story, it could hardly be bettered, showing business growth around 10% each year at all stations.

Since 2000, ScotRail has enjoyed a 157% growth in their revenue on the line.

The obvious next step would be to reopen East Linton station and go through an equivalent exercise to grow a Dunbar-Edinburgh local service. But although ScotRail have been persuaded to run four trains a day to Dunbar (compared to the previous none) and the logic of running  30-min service out to Drem and then alternating between Dunbar and North Berwick as destinations seems irrefutable, there is, as yet, no sign they’ve learned lesson one from the story laid out above.

Shame there isn’t a Dunbar Negotiating Committee. Maybe there should be.

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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