At the beginning of the month, ScotRail returned to public control. Its quarter-century under private management had seen improvements in the shape of new trains on many routes and, with support from the Scottish Government, the re-opening of several rail lines to passengers:
- Borders line to Tweedbank via Dalkeith and Galasheils
- Airdrie/Bathgate line with service Edinburgh to Dumbarton & beyond
- Alloa via Stirling
In addition, a number of stations on existing lines reopened, including Lawrencekirk, Beauly, Conan Bridge, Gretna and Edinburgh Gateway. Work is in progress to electrify the Edinburgh-Glasgow-Stirling triangle (EGIP) and there are plans to reopen the line to Leven and introduce a stopping service to Berwick with new stations at East Linton and Reston.
But, generally, there has been a public sense of dissatisfaction with services and fares. The first franchise was given to First, who ran the trains much as they ran their buses—as a cash cow source of revenue and profits. They did nothing outside of that which the government required of them. The only new services were on those reopened lines described above. It took much local lobbying and persuasion for them to run even four trains a day to Dunbar—25 miles inside Scotland but otherwise served erratically only by long-distance trains to England.
All this in itself would not have been enough to lose First the franchise. But, as with other train operating companies, they raised fares each year by the maximum permitted, yet ran a service of marginal punctuality and reliability, collecting too low a proportion of fares, despite ticket gates being installed at major stations. As a result of this, they lost the franchise to Abelio, a subsidiary of Dutch National Railways (Ns = Nederlandse Spoorwagen) on April 1st 2015.
Anyone who had traveled in the Netherlands would have been delighted at this. Not only are trains there fast, frequent, reliable and relatively cheap, but they are well integrated into the national transport system, with easy connections to bus and tram, plus a stunningly handy station right beneath Schipol airport.
To say the intervening seven years were a disappointment is an understatement. It was not clear to anyone that management had changed. Services and punctuality were, if anything, worse. In fact, the management had NOT changed: the same people who ran the cash cow for First were kept on to run the same cash cow for NS. On average, some £4 million in profit was sent to NS each year.
The situation was not helped by a revolving door of Transport ministers in the Scottish Government—a total of eight just in the time of SNP administrations. That’s an average of less than six months in post for each. So this month, as ScotRail moves back under direct control, what is the eighth Minister (Jenny Gilruth MSP, now two months in post) likely to do?
“This portfolio is an exciting opportunity to shape the infrastructure of our country,.”—Jenny Gilruth MSP
The immediate pressure from opposition MSPs across the board has been targeting fares as being unaffordable—£254 for a monthly pass to Edinburgh from Kirkcaldy.
“Rail travel north of the border is still 20% cheaper than in England. Our Fair Fares review will look at the cost of fares right across the public transport system and how we better join them up.”—Jenny Gilruth MSP
But, given the revolving door tenure of the post and the Stalinist loyalty of SNP Ministers, what are the chances that Ms Gilruth will be given the latitude to innovate as her predecessors clearly have not?
“Gilruth takes over the portfolio at a critical time as transport is a key driver for reaching net-zero ambitions.”—First Minister Nicola Sturgeon
Well, that does sound promising. But, if it is just a matter of lowering fares, does that really qualify as a “key driver” or “opportunity to shape the infrastructure” mentioned above? The problem is that similar worthy ambition has laced he statements of seven predecessors. But we still don’t have single-ticketing; we still don’t have even an Oyster-style universal swipe card; we still don’t have timetable co-ordination. Worse, we have Edinburgh Council running its trams and Lothian Buses in isolation and competition for profit, just as Glasgow runs the Clockwork Orange. And let’s not even start on ferries and planes.
Although there is scant chance of this author becoming the ninth Transport Minister, his years of car-less residence in Munich and San Francisco make him to competent to comment on public transport and what remedies might be applied.
Munich has had a single-ticket system, valid on bus, train, tram and underground FOR HALF A CENTURY. It is fast, easy and cheap, meaning a city three times the size of Edinburgh is much easier to access than by car. So public transport is the mode of choice, not compulsion. The equivalent—at least for main cities—is years overdue and must be THE priority.
Then there is the rationalisation of services. Lothian buses starting in Tranent to go to Clermiston is insanity, not just because they clog up Edinburgh city centre. Glasgow still has a suburban rail net, so buses should feed its stations. Similarly, buses from Tranent should feed Prestonpans or Wallyford stations. Having multiple bus routes parallel a train or tram line is inefficient and most certainly not green.
This will require timetable co-ordination. In Holland, try to get from Rotterdam by train to Medemblick and you are told to go to Hoorn. But when you walk off the train at Hoorn, you are confronted with a bus to Medemblick. And the bus back gets you there five minutes before the train passes through. This is not rocket science. But in the 25 years of ScotRail, NONE of this has ever happened here, despite Transport Ministers, their squad of Sir Humphreys, Transport Scotland, SESTrans, Council Transport Services Officials and Uncle Tom Cobley all pulling decent salaries out of the public purse.
And this does not even begin to address some real strategic questions, such as:
- Why does Scotland have THREE airports in the Central Belt that compete with each other (Edinburgh, Glasgow and Prestwick) when none of them can hold a candle to Dublin or Copenhagen for modernity, facilities, ease of access and choice of destinations?
- Why does it take three hours in a poky 3-car class 170 “Express” train to get between Glasgow and Aberdeen (145 miles = average speed < 50 mph) when you can drive faster. Tis should be Scotland’s premier route. Trains from Edinburgh to Durham take less than 2 hours for the same distance.
- And if we are to talk fares, why is it cheaper to buy split, rather than through tickets? As an example, North Berwick to Dundee is £4 cheaper if bought as NB-Edinburgh, then Edinburgh-Dundee, rather than NB-Dundee?
In America, “jitney” is their term for cheap, fast local transport. If the car-mad Americans can do it, will Ms Gilruth break the mould that still offers Scotland a 19th century transport system, but at 21st century prices that the previous seven Transport Ministers bequeathed her?
Or will people continue to use their cars because, though we may spend lots on public transport, it is not a system?
jitney /ˈdʒɪtni/ noun—informal; North American
“a bus or other vehicle carrying passengers for a low fare.“