Ever since 2007 when the affable, ineffectual John Home Robertson (as unlikely a Labour MSP as you’ll ever meet) drifted into retirement, East Lothian has been represented at the Scottish Parliament by Iain Gray. Now Iain—like John—is not a bad lad. Trained as a teacher, he worked abroad and later in a charity. He is not your standard numpty. Unlike the unlamented, autocratic Anne Picking who was his MP colleague for a time, he doesn’t abuse punters with egotistical expenses. There’s not much legacy from his four years as Labour Leader in Scotland but ‘ineffectual’ seems a common trait in that job.
Though I am not standing again, I need to declare an interest in this: I stood against him in 2011 and ran him close. The worst I can say about him then is he was an opponent who pulled out all the stops he could to win. Nowt wrong with that, although he was clearly bricking it during the recount at the Corn Exchange. But I hold no deep animosity toward him, other than a frustration that he treads water in this magic corner of the country that deserves better—East Lothian.
Abelio’s ScotRail runs the North Berwick line that is the transport backbone of the county and the prime means whereby thousands of professionals who leave here shuttle into Edinburgh to earn a decent wage. So, when I heard Iain was stirring up a campaign against the inept way it is being run, my first thought was: “good on him; about time he showed some leadership; that’s a local issue crying out for it”.
Except, as I dug deeper, my enthusiasm waned. The line has been in need of serious management intervention ever since the Class 380 4-car units were introduced in June four years ago. The trains themselves are now excellent and solve many earlier problems. But that, along with the booming ridership, has exposed shortcomings in management, not rolling stock. As he uses the train more than I do, why has it taken him four years to recognise that, for all that time passengers have had to put up with:
- Unreliable service. This is more than ECML trains with higher priority delaying our local service. ScotRail habitually abandons the 17:43 ex-Haymarket or turns trains at Drem to make up time, leaving dozens of passengers stranded.
- Overcrowded trains. Starting at Prestonpans inward in the mornings and that far outward at night has always been standing room only but now it’s so bad that people at Musselburgh can’t even squeeze on the train.
- Revenue loss. Partly due to overcrowding but mostly to inadequate staffing, hundreds of people from/to the last couple of stations never have their ticket checked and so freeloading has become endemic, much to the annoyance of passengers from further East who pay their fares.
- Antiquated ticketing. Not only no automatic barriers at Waverley but no sign of reusable swipe cards like Oyster which has boosted ridership and cut delays in London for the last 13 years. As a tease, readers have been installed at stations two years before tickets that use them.
- Chaotic planning. It took almost ten years to get the Class 380 trains appropriate for the line and platforms were extended to cope. Now they are being extended again—but only to accommodate 5-car trains. There are no 5-car Class 380 sets.
- Poor maintenance. Ticket machines are regularly out of service, the Kiosk leaks like a sieve since it was built and it took over a month to fix the sliding door.
So, Iain has much to get his teeth into; since he rides the line, he ought to know all this. Yet, what does he make by way of suggestions to line up with RAGES, ELC, George Kerevan MP, Colin Beattie (MSP for Wallyford & Musselburgh, the worst affected stops) for a coherent campaign of lobbying? Well, nothing beyond a petition to ‘improve conditions’.
Iain has been out at stations handing these to commuters. He was at North Berwick on Feb 22nd and deserves credit for being there on a cold mornings. His reception was frostier than the weather. Even if everyone were to sign this petition, how does that advance a solution towards which others have been working for the last five years?
Unlike five years ago, ScotRail now runs trains to/from Dunbar and is in receipt of a follow-up paper outlining how a half-hourly service between Drem and Waverley can be run using one more train than they do now (4 instead of 3 sets in service). With an alternating hourly services to/from North Berwick AND Dunbar congestion would ease. Such a service is needed anyway to serve East Linton station when it is re-opened.
This solution seems clear, easy to implement and solves most problems listed above. If, for some reason, it doesn’t appeal to Iain, he should propose something equally effective. After four years to think up something, is one whiny petition the best he can do? What point is there trying to get up steam in a such chocolate engine?
My cynical side says this sudden interest in commuter welfare has more to do with a May election looming at which he’s threatened with his jotters. Like Home Robertson before him, the people of East Lothian have little benefit to show for his decade in post. His achievements? Unswerving loyalty to Labour and an affable presence kept afloat by SPAD-spawned press releases. But does he really believe people want their money spent on leaflets for symbolic campaigns like the above—more focused on keeping him off the burroo than improving the lot of his parishioners?