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ScotRail’s critics are on the wrong track

Waverley station passenger ticket gate

Terry smiling headIt’s no fun being stuck on an overcrowded train, especially when it’s also broken down, and deep inside a tunnel. After a recent spate of incidents on the ScotRail system it is no wonder rail passengers have had enough.

However, we may be approaching panto season but let’s not pretend the public sector has a fairy godmother who can magically fix the rail system and prevent such incidents happening in the future.

There’s been a lot of hogwash written and spoken about the need to take the railways back into public ownership. It’s not that public ownership is a bad thing, only that the problems besetting the rail network are not a result of who owns and runs the railways.

One angry caller to a radio phone-in said ScotRail would work better if Abellio, the rail operator, and Network Rail, the infrastructure company, worked together.

Er…actually, they do.

The ScotRail Alliance is a rare example of the two co-operating and is being watched by the rest of the UK network because of the benefits they’ve gained from working together on updating the system.

In fact, there is nothing much wrong with ScotRail that Abellio and Network Rail don’t know about: ageing locomotives, track and signalling that are in need of repair and upgrading.

And this will take time. Restoring an old building means putting up with a bit of inconvenience while the leaking roof and dodgy plumbing are fixed.

Sadly, no one is prepared to tolerate disruption while the rail network is effectively rebuilt.

It’s a massive undertaking, restoring tunnels, laying new track, installing electrification. New trains will arrive next year.

It’s understandable that passengers want quick solutions. It is frustrating and stressful when the trains are delayed or break down and ScotRail could do more to help by at least keeping passengers informed. It’s an easy fix that does not get enough attention.

ScotRail: frustration (photo by Terry Murden)

But the knee-jerk calls for re-nationalisation are not the answer. For starters, the work will be complete before even a short term change could take place.

And what would happen if the public sector took over? Apart from changing a few senior managers it would be run by the same drivers and rail maintenance workers, the same time-tablers and engineers…

It was the Scottish government that drew up the current contract. If the government “took over” it would merely re-issue the same set of instructions to the same people.

Transport minister Humza Yousaf has taken it upon himself to be seen “to be doing something”. Frankly, there isn’t much more he could do, apart from to tell his critics that everything is in hand, and that Abellio is being given a kick now and again to ensure it meets its deadlines.

There is no guarantee that Abellio will hit all of its targets all of the time. But nor could a government-run railway make such a promise.


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