Rail passenger anger and frustration has reached boiling point in Scotland after a succession of delays, cancellations and breakdowns.
Late running trains whizz through stations where they are meant to stop. And commuters often find themselves having to stand in crowded compartments due to failure to provide adequate carriages.
So it’s right that the service is now under intense pressure to improve. But recent weeks have seen many critics default to a standard response when anything goes wrong: nationalise it.
It slips easily from the tongues of those whose memories of the public ownership era have faded into a nostalgic rosy-pink glow – or those who lucky to be young enough not to have any memories of this period at all.
To put the service on a better footing – and everyone agrees a better footing is now surely due – a more studied and fact-based analysis is needed of what’s going wrong, why the service is so poor and what is now needed to put things right.
This needs to be more than a glib public relations hand-out from Dutch operator Abellio about “listening to customers” and “lessons are being learned”.
Such an analysis has now come from Reform Scotland, the independent, non-party think tank in paper called Track to the Future. It is a blueprint for modernising Scotland’s railways.
The report has been written by Reform Scotland’s Research Director Alison Payne and Tom Harris, the former Labour Transport Minister in the UK Government and now a Reform Scotland Advisory Board member.
The report researches the problems, and suggests solutions which could transform our railways. Here are the key findings:
Responsibility for managing and running the rail network is complicated with many different bodies involved, and when something goes wrong it is often not the fault of a single entity
Over the last year, 54% of ScotRail’s delays (over three minutes) were a result of faults attributed to Network Rail, which is already a public body, albeit one which is ultimately accountable to Westminster not Holyrood.
Journey times in Scotland compare unfavourably with those of a similar distance in England e.g. Edinburgh to Aberdeen and London to Birmingham are roughly the same distance, but the former takes well over two hours and the latter less than 90 minutes.
Birmingham and Manchester are 25% further apart than Glasgow and Dundee, but the train takes 15 minutes less to arrive.
The Scottish Government’s railway investment is welcome, but upgrading lines while trying to simultaneously use them is complex and can cause additional problems.
Previous investments such as the Borders Railway were limited and short-sighted – it is not electrified, it is single-track and the new bridges were built in such a way as to be unable to accommodate double-track, meaning the potential benefit of linking the service up to Carlisle is harder to realise.
Under current proposals, over the next 30 years people will be able to travel by train from the Central Belt to London faster than from the Central Belt to Inverness; to London from the Central Belt quicker than they will be able to reach Inverness despite the former being around 400 miles while the latter is only 160 miles
The report, therefore, calls for three, simple, immediately possible solutions which would put Scotland on the right track for the future:
Network Rail should be devolved so that the Scottish route is answerable to the Scottish Government offering a clear line of accountability when something goes wrong
The Scottish Government should future-proof all new rail investment by ensuring that it is double-track and electrified where possible.
The Scottish Government should create a bold and ambitious Scottish Rail Infrastructure Commission, similar to High Speed North from the National Infrastructure Commission, which looks at how we want our cities and towns to be connected decades from now, including faster links from the central belt to both the north and the south, and looking at strategic inter- and intra-city rail links within Scotland.
Commenting, Tom Harris said, “The current debate over whether or not to nationalise ScotRail misses the point. 54% of delays are the fault of Network Rail. Nationalising ScotRail won’t make the trains run on time and it is self-defeating for any politician to imply otherwise.
“Instead, we need fundamental change to the governance of Network Rail. The Scottish Government is responsible for the strategic direction and funding of the Scottish rail network, but this responsibility cannot be properly exercised while Network Rail remains answerable to the UK Government.
“Reform Scotland believes that Network Rail in Scotland should be fully accountable to the Scottish Government, and that means it must be devolved.
“Our rail infrastructure is deficient. We should not tolerate a situation where a resident of Glasgow can get to London faster than she can get to Inverness, because Scotland’s cities are too poorly connected”.
Well done to Reform Scotland for a positive and well-argued contribution to debate on the future of Scotland’s rail network. Further information is available at www.reformscotland.com