As I See It
ScotRail seeking a little more patience
The press conference started 11 minutes late. And there was no milk for the tea. Coffee arrived just before proceedings began. It all seemed so apt.
Let’s be fair about this. My train from Edinburgh Waverley left bang on time at 8am and arrived at Queen Street on schedule at 8.55am. I had four seats to myself. The wi-fi worked perfectly.
So why all the fuss which led 20,000 passengers to sign a petition demanding change?
Well, you only have to monitor social media. Twitter in particular is a hotspot for weary travellers to vent their views about punctuality and overcrowding. It’s what social media does best. One defining interpretation I have adopted about Twitter is that is “an early warning system”.
Ironically, I got that from a Network Rail manager who said it lets him know exactly what is happening at any one time. If there is an incident, or a problem, it will almost certainly be articulated by someone on Twitter.
It can alert the fixers who can respond quickly and get things done. It reminds them that their customers are no longer passive consumers afraid to let rip when things go wrong.
It also enables the providers to respond quickly, to let those same customers know that help is at hand and that something is being done to tackle their concerns.
As for ScotRail, the issues are beyond quick fixes. Abellio, the Dutch firm which has a 10-year licence to operate the franchise, promised new trains and better services when it took over from First Group last year. Since then it has become one of the most demonised companies in the country.
Today’s press conference looked like a gesture of goodwill to respond to passengers’ concerns and the petition which is now with Transport Minister Humza Yousaf.
We were told that, in fact, it had been planned some time ago to outline its response to Transport Scotland’s demand for an “Improvement Plan”. Even so, the nature of the abbreviated document explaining why it has fallen short and what progress is being made looked suspiciously like it had been rushed out to mollify the media.
I said in an earlier comment today that it was a risk to organise the event for 9.30am, given that some of those attending would be making their way there by train. Although my journey was faultless, one reporter said her train was late. “So I’m revved for this,” she said.
The conference was hosted by three operational directors and, as expected they focused on the complex engineering work as the cause of most of the disruption.
Each of the directors accepted that performance could be improved, while outlining the prize awaited in a year’s time when new trains and most of the new infrastructure will be in place.
The passengers get this. They know that the existing rolling stock is past its best and they look forward to the improvements under way. Apart from the big ticket projects like electrification, cabling and tunnelling David Dickson, director of infrastructure, said more effort was being put into tasks such as clearing vegetation from the track side to avoid problems of trees falling on the lines.
There are promises to identify and fix faults more quickly and to improve the rostering of staff. There will be better monitoring of so-called ‘Golden Trains’. These are the services that, if delayed, have the biggest impact on the rest of the rest of the rail network.
But overcrowding is a particular pain point. Faults that affect one train and impact on other services will continue to cause delays. There seems to be little prospect of these key concerns improving in the short term.