For the avoidance of doubt—and to avoid them too much cost in their libel lawyers as they scratch around for actionable evidence, First is a crap company. It doesn’t matter which fragment of the empire you’re talking about—from FirstBus Edinburgh, through ScotRail to Great Western, every division is run on the same, rather transparent principle: we’re in this for short-term profit—all else can go hang. Forget any long-term, thoughtful investments in the future. They run any old rickety vehicle, charge top dollar for the privilege and get out of Dodge once they lose whatever franchise this approach has poisoned. The bus divisions are particularly bad at this but even ScotRail, run by decent people trying to do a decent job, have their hands tied so the difference is not obvious.
And its not just by First Group that Steve Montgomery and his team are straitjacketed. The Office of the Rail Regulator is run by a time-serving bunch of old-school incompetents. Richard Price, another Sir Humphrey product of DEFRA and HM Treasury, pulled in over £100k, as did four colleagues. Another half-dozen averaged £80k, with John Larkinson getting a £600k ‘bonus’ for less than a year’s stint as “Director, Railway Planning and Performance”. Oh, and did I mention the Board getting £300k for attending its monthly meeting?
But that’s small beer in the £30m ‘income’ largely from licence fees (£13m) paid by train companies to operate and a cool £17m in “Safety Levy”, paid by? You guessed it: the train companies. Or to be more precise: you. 2p of every one of the 1.23 bn rail journeys we made last year went to ORR. And for this, we got what, exactly? Not much. Train leasing had been identified by the ORR as an area of concern:
“Our review of (train leasing) markets has identified features that appear to us to prevent, restrict or distort competition.”
So, er, what happened? Well, they referred the ROSCOs cabal behaviour to the Competition Commission. That was in 2007. What has happened in the six years since to prevent “train operating companies paying higher prices and/or receiving a poorer quality of service than if competition was more effective” as ORR thundered at the time? Well, um, nothing. (See Rosco Used in Train Robbery for details of their greed)
And this is the steely-eyed regulator supposed to be forging ScotRail into a sleek, efficient public-serving company? So, on top of myopic High-Heid-Yins at Group and an ORR that is seems unconcerned at private snouts deep in the public trough, provided room remains for their own, ScotRail also has to contend with the all-party pork barrel lobby at the Scottish Parliament, because those are the ones dealing out its franchise.
It does not take a degree in Transport Strategy to wonder where priorities for rail development in Scotland come from. While capital investment in improving the network in almost any form can be seen as welcome, how do we justify that work to date were our highest priorities? Waverley looks good—but £58m for four ‘new’ platforms (still one less than the 21 it used to have) is a deal? Or £57.6m to have a 13m line from Stirling serve one station at Alloa (pop. 19,000)? Or ten years of fiddling about with the 30 mile Borders railway when its costs have quadrupled to £350m today?
Even the Airdrie/Bathgate line is hard to justify—£300m for 15 miles as a fourth link between Edinburgh and Glasgow 15 minutes slower than the existing diesel alternative. All of these projects smell of local politicians cutting deals to get their own local rail link built, with little concept of what Scotland needs as a whole. But what would that actually mean? Let’s leave aside the vital cross-border requirements and the involved arguments over HS2 and consider just internal Scottish requirements.
The most glaring omission is a complete absence of anything like a real express service within Scotland. This is most obvious on Edinburgh-Glasgow but continues as a need for such services from both to Aberdeen. The much-curtailed EGIP project may address the first and provide faster links on a busy route. But it does nothing to address the second, which offers huge potential by slicing an hour off the present 3-hour journey. This, in turn, makes Dundee and Inverness more accessible and would have knock-on positive effects on present services that are no more than glorified local sprinters. Alternatives like doubling parts of the Highland Line should be seen for the pork barrel by Northern MSPs that they are.
At present, ScotRail operates nothing that anyone would regard as an express train. Even new class 170s are hopeless when compared to East Coast or Cross Country stock, either of which would be an appropriate solution to carry such passengers. This is where First ScotRail fail their long-distance customers: they should be beating the Transport Minster’s door down to get a faster Perth-Lawrencekirk line built and Class 222s to take advantage of it (See Brechin’s Revenge on Beeching for details). A proper, frequent express service on this key Aberdeen triangle would revolutionise rail in Scotland in a way that no local Alloa/Airdrie/Gala/Cumbernauld pork barrel project ever could.
Since 96 trains—1/3rd of ScotRail’s fleet (unloved class 156/158 diesel past-their-sell-by-date clunkers)—are due for replacement in 2018-2020, is this not an opportunity for ScotRail, in cahoots with the Scottish Government, to declare rail independence? By cutting out the middle man and forming our own train leasing company (‘Caledonian Railway’ has a ring to it) Scotland could grab our slice of the big fat £1.2bn cake that Porterbrook, Angel and HSBC glibly divide among themselves annually, ScotRail would save a third of its £86m annual train leasing costs. Put another way, we could effectively add another £30m investment in Scotland’s rail future at a stroke.
If independence is won next September, this move should be a no-brainer. But should a desperate Union hoodwink Scots into keeping this bankrupt UK afloat, some gutsy moves by Ministers would still be able to turn our rail into more than the present collection of rickety branch services. This would allow First—through ScotRail—to earn its moniker for the first time.