Few ScotRail customers notice that it changes timetables each May and December because the changes are typically minor. This May is different. The standard timetable shows losses to some services, reflecting reduction in passengers since Covid. Worse than that, an industrial dispute with train drivers about overtime that has festered since First ran the ScotRail franchise has shelved this new timetable already, and replaced it with an emergency one from Monday 23rd. It will run until the dispute ends.
The most drastic cut is in evening services, with last trains running hours earlier than usual. The last train from Glasgow to Dundee is now 19:10 and to Edinburgh 22:00. Hardly an encouragement to use public transport for an evening out in Edinburgh, instead of 23:14, the last train to North Berwick is now 19:37. ScotRail trains to Dunbar disappear altogether.
This last is not as bad as it sounds. An afterthought, seldom included in Transport Scotland or ScotRail thinking, East Lothian and the Eastern Borders are an anomaly because they run on the East Coast Main Line (ECML), the planning for which is driven by the English Ministry of Transport and English Train Operating Companies (TOCs).
The result is a guddle of competing services between Edinburgh and Berwick, at the heart of which lies Dunbar. A smattering of GNER trains stopping on their way to/from London in the 1990s meant they ran the only manned station in the area. As Dunbar grew with masses of new commuter homes, stopping services improved, largely due to persistent lobbying by the Rail Action Group East of Scotland (RAGES). Something like an hourly service to/from Edinburgh was achieved when ScotRail agreed to run trains in the existing gaps, turning them at Dunbar.
The variety of long-distance operators multiplied, with GNER eventually transforming into LNER, Cross Country (XC) expanding its services and being joined by a Transpennine service to Newcastle stopping at Dunbar. The result was a service of 20 trains each way providing access over the 28 miles to Scotland’s capital in just 20 minutes. Ridership grew, and the goal of shifting people from their cars was particularly successful.
Business was so good, it justified the first major rail investment in the area since the £57 million shifting of the ECML tracks at Prestonpans to avoid mining subsidence. Dunbar’s single platform on a loop off the southbound (Up) line was augmented by a £7 million platform on the northbound (Down) line itself, but did not provide a loop so trains could stop and still keep the line clear. This has increased ECML capacity as northbound trains stopping at Dunbar no longer need cross the Up line to reach the sole platform.
Losing its five daily ScotRail trains still leaves around 15 trains calling daily. But this is likely to result in a deterrent to rail travel discussed in Have Anorak—Will Travel: Morpeth a month ago.
Long distance train operating companies (LDTOCs) do not run their trains as ScotRail does, where tickets are generally valid on all services. Long distance operators run an airline-style system, where tickets are only valid for a certain train and not generally valid on other operators. Because they ran so few trains deeper into Scotland, LDTOCs have usually accepted ScotRail tickets between, say, Perth and Edinburgh. But this may change.
The three LDTOCs providing the 15 services stopping at Dunbar are in fierce competition further south. For the duration of the temporary timetable, they may accept ScotRail tickets from Dunbar because there are no ScotRail trains on which they could be used. But whether a TP ticket will be accepted on a XC train or vice-versa may become problematic. Ignorance of such things is unlikely to cut much ice in avoiding a £20 penalty ticket, plus full single fare, should this be enforced.
So Dunbar may soon suffer Morpeth’s problem: a plethora of trains calling but, depending on your ticket, several hours between services by the same LDTOC that on which you can use that ticket.
For Dunbar locals reading this. Consult with the ticket counter at Dunbar. Not only is Dunbar that increasingly rare creature—a manned station—but, since being run by ScotRail, they are helpful, informative and an encouragement to keep using public transport, despite present travails.