ScotRail has come into some stick from customers for habitual poor service, especially since the franchise was taken over by Abelio four yeas ago. There have been a catalogue of criticisms, many of them recurring as frequently as Abelio promises of improvements. These include:
- October 2016: 19,000 people back a petition calling for Abellio to be stripped of its ScotRail contract over delays and cancellations.
- May 2018: ScotRail misses performance targets in 22 out of 34 areas in the first months of that year. They were hammered with a £1.6m fine.
- July 2018: The first of a new batch of electric trains start running four months after they were promised.
- October 2018: Performance level hits the lowest since the franchise began in 2015.
- December 2018: The rail operator is given eight weeks to improve performance in an official notice issued by the Scottish Government after a surge in cancellations.
- January 2019: Passenger satisfaction falls to a 16-year low and ScotRail apologises for “unacceptable service”. The Sun excoriates them for this.
- February 2019: ScotRail is given a second notice after failing to meeting passenger satisfaction targets. Figures show that staff shortages caused the cancellation of thousands of ScotRail services since April 2018.
- August 2019: Major disruption and claims of dangerous overcrowding during the Edinburgh Fringe.
- Transport Secretary Michael Matheson announces franchise will end in March 2022, three years earlier than expected.
The analysis of this slow car crash by Douglas Fraser, BBC Business and Economics Editor, Scotland does not make for pleasant reading.
It did not have to end this way. Abelio should have been the godsend to rescue Scottish rail services from the penny-pinching, profit-obsessed clutches of First Group. They had run it like there bus operations—as a “cash cow”. But also, Abelio is a subsidiary of Nederlands Spoorwagen (NS = Dutch Railways). Anyone visiting Holland can’t fail to be impressed by the smooth, fast, punctual operations of their superb and frequent trains.
As it turned out, little of that expetise made its way to ScotRail. Indeed, the mediocre management ingerited from First was largely left in place and the cash cow milked in the same old way to subsidise NS to the tune of several £million each year.
To be fair, improvements like free WiFi, new trains and auto station announcements did happen. But had the ever-higher fares been invested in the ScotRail system, rather than repatriated to Holland, they might have avoided losing the franchise and addressed the many operational shortcomings that pushed their customers patience into seeing red, such as:
- Cancellation of trains with no notice, often because train crews were unavailable
- Turning services before the outbound terminus to avoid the return being late.
- Station announcement boards showing ate/cancelled trains as “on time”.
- Overcrowded trains with too few carriages causing poor fare collection.
- New contactless card readers are still not usable by most tickets.
- Total lack of bus co-ordination or common ticketing (c.f. London’s Oyster).
- Refusal to try new routes or even extra trains for events like the Festival.
- Lack of interest in tourism, e.g. promotion tickets to attractions.
Generally, new trains are fast, clean and bright, train staff are capable and pleasant and new service (Borders, Alloa) are great successes. But operational management of the system has been shoddy, verging on the amateur. Business oportunities to boost profits are ignored. As an example, ridership on the line into booming East Lothian has doubled in a decade. But apart from newer trains, nothing has been done to encourage more because trains and station car parks are both full. The extra £1m profit they now make here forms part of what disappears to Holland.
It’s high time Abelio was stripped of a franchise they simply have not earned. There is a strong argument coming from both unions and the Greens that this should be taken back into public ownership. But, whatever happens, don‘t give it back to First!