Aside from the aficionados of engines, track, points and weighty timetables, the magazine Modern Railways might not hold a particular appeal. But for those charged with ensuring that the public can enjoy a convenient, reliable and modern means of travel this month’s edition sounded a cautionary note.
Under the headline ‘Scotland rethinks its relationship with rail’, the magazine asked: “Is Holyrood falling out of love with rail?” Its conclusion: “The jury is out.” In an introduction to a special report, the magazine noted that since the devolution of transport policy from Westminster, Scotland had become known as a country “that is all for rail”; a series of reopened routes and an ambitious electrification programme had cemented that reputation.
What has changed? Last November, Transport Scotland, the agency responsible for the country’s rail and trunk road networks and for coordinating the Government’s strategy, published a consultation document Rail2014, with a foreword signed by Alex Neil, Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure and Capital Investment, and Keith Brown, the Transport Minister.
Designed to solicit views ahead of the renewal of the contract for rail passenger services – the ‘ScotRail’ franchise currently operated by FirstGroup – and changes to the funding arrangements for Network Rail, which owns and operates the railway infrastructure in Scotland, some of the possibilities raised by the consultation caused a stir: ‘Higher fares, longer journeys, fewer stations: a vision for ScotRail 2014’ was the headline on The Scotsman’s report.
Immediately after its publication, amid outcry from opposition politicians, Neil said: “Some of the ideas in that document will quite frankly be seen as a bit out of the box, just to test opinion.” And in a briefing to the media, a spokesman for First Minister Alex Salmond made the distinction between a consultation in which the Government’s preference was indicated and one in which no position was taken; the spokesman said that Rail2014 fell into the latter category.
“The purpose of the consultation was to enable the people of Scotland to tell us about the kind of rail passenger service they want,” Keith Brown told Holyrood magazine last week. “One of the main aims was to stimulate debate and we have been pleased by the level of response and would like to thank all those who took part and made their views known.
“The consultation responses will help us understand what aspects of rail services are particularly important and where to target investment. We are aiming for a railway that offers value for money, acts in an integrated manner and has passenger interests at its heart.
“Since 2007 we have invested in rail services, providing 30,000 extra seats a day and five new stations. The Stirling-Alloa-Kincardine rail line opened in May 2008 and has since had four times the anticipated patronage. Having proposed the Bill for this when I was council leader, I was particularly pleased to see it succeed so spectacularly.
“The Airdrie-Bathgate line has been hugely successful at getting more and more people on the trains, with all the benefits that entails – less congestion on the roads, a reduction in carbon emissions and increased job and investment opportunities.
“We are also now working towards the Edinburgh-Glasgow improvements and bringing a rail line to the Scottish Borders and Midlothian for the first time in 40 years.” Brown acknowledged that challenges remained: “Our rail network plays a varied role across Scotland, providing vital commuting opportunities and lifeline services in rural areas.
Yet the network we have today was largely planned by the Victorians.
“We need to ensure that it is fit for purpose in the 21st century, despite the unprecedented financial constraints we now face. As businesses in Scotland expand, communities adapt. The shape of our towns and cities shifts, as do the travel needs of the Scottish population.
So, too, must the rail network serving the Scottish people evolve.
“Rail is only one part of the transport network, and we will be looking at ways to ensure that the various transport modes and services can act in a more co-ordinated manner.
This could be through the innovative use of smart and integrated ticketing and provision of travel information, such as through Traveline Scotland. We will be looking for ways in which these can be included in the contract for the next rail franchise. “One of the big issues which has arisen over recent years has been connectivity on the railways. For that reason, we are looking into wi-fi availability on trains and will soon be announcing the details of a trial scheme.
“We haven’t shied away from the real challenge we face – the need to be more cost-efficient, while investing to achieve low-carbon economic growth. Alex Neil and I are also fighting hard to ensure the high-speed rail line stretching north from London comes all the way to Scotland, and not just a third of the way up the British mainland, as is currently the plan from Westminster.” How confident was he of a shift within the UK Government regarding high-speed rail? “I am extremely confident that the Department for Transport will accept the findings of the Fast Track Scotland report by Scotland’s business, travel and civic leaders. That is that the case for high-speed rail is strong, but is stronger still when Scotland is involved from the start.
“I will soon be meeting with Michael Moore and Justine Greening to impress on them the value of Scotland’s inclusion, and to reaffirm our willingness to work with them in ensuring that we realise the benefits of high-speed rail at the earliest, practicable opportunity.” Hard on the heels of Transport Scotland’s consultation came the annual hike in fares which has put the cost of travel between the country’s main population centres at eye-watering levels.
Brown insisted that the Government was committed to ensuring rail travel remained affordable: “[It] currently subsidises the railways in Scotland to the tune of £725m a year, and passengers pay around £295m a year as well.
“We have asked a number of questions about our fares policy in the consultation and will be reviewing the responses with interest. Under the current franchise agreement fares which we regulate are set to rise by a maximum of the retail price index plus 1 per cent. However, unregulated fares are a matter for individual train operating companies. We will continue to review the fares situation and will be considering what type of fares regulation we require for the next rail franchise.
“Rail travel, however, is continuing to rise in popularity with passenger numbers growing across Scotland. The growth rate for the Edinburgh conurbation is expected to be around 100 per cent until 2025, and in the Glasgow area alone, where we have the largest commuter rail network in the UK outside of London, growth in journeys is forecast at between 24 and 38 per cent over the period to 2025. Achieving greater value for money and encouraging increased rail use are at the forefront of our considerations.” For Brown, championing rail has made him a target. In his New Year message, he extolled the virtues of public transport but admitted “personally, my car acts as a mobile office, allowing me to catch up on work in between engagements in a way I wouldn’t be able to using other means of transport”. Government figures subsequently revealed that he had claimed expenses for train travel only four times since being appointed, while making 226 journeys by chauffeur-driven government car; casting him in a less favourable light than his predecessor Stewart Stevenson.
“I have always acknowledged that the car can be useful when working and travelling,” said Brown last week. “As with many people, rail is not always possible, however, I do consider the most appropriate form of transport, whether rail, car, bus or on foot as is often the case in Edinburgh and Glasgow. I very much enjoy rail travel and often travel by bus and, in particular, on foot.” The travel record of ministers aside, critics of the Government’s support of rail detect a “discernible slackening of momentum” from 2007 onward, coinciding with the SNP inheriting rail improvement and extension programmes put in place by the previous Labour-Liberal Democrat administration.
“Whilst the 2010/2011 reopening of the Airdrie-Bathgate line was obviously hugely welcome, it was substantially committed and probably unstoppable after 2007,” said Ken Sutherland, research officer at Railfuture Scotland, which represents rail users. “Likewise commitment to the Borders line reopening was probably perceived to be politically inextricable.
Even the much vaunted Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme (EGIP) also had its genesis pre-2007.
“Although still surviving, it is unravelling in some respects with the de facto downgrading of the Cumbernauld line through scrapping of the crucial so-called Garngad Curve. This is despite unconvincing EGIP attempts to deny the existence of this link as an integrally important and previously declared component of the overall EGIP plan.
“Similarly with EGIP’s recent decision to opt for a Hyndland turnback [reversing track], rather than the long-planned north electric turnback at Finnieston or Queen Street low level turnback. Both of those previously intended EGIP proposals would have increased overall track capacity, for future increased services provision, offered greater route flexibility and overall reliability.” Sutherland said that the scrapping of the Edinburgh Airport and Glasgow Airport rail links, the Glasgow and Aberdeen crossrail projects, vetoing of the Edinburgh suburban line reopening and deferral of completion dates for several rail projects, including the Perth- Inverness and Aberdeen-Inverness lines, were indicative of a change.
“Behind the scenes government pressure and ‘transport guidelines’ given to Transport Scotland are responsible for certain railway projects being downgraded. There is a clear inference that certain railway improvement projects are now deemed ‘not necessary’ rather than being retained in the category of ‘still highly desirable but regrettably can’t be afforded in the meantime’.
“Although the current SNP Government is constantly intimating its desire to spend more on capital infrastructure projects, those ambitions generally give an investment swerve away from rail-based projects.
“A reading of Transport Scotland’s Rail2014 consultation reveals something of the negative hidden agenda at work. This document, which does admittedly contain a wealth of interesting and useful information, purports to be soliciting the public’s views on the future of Scotland’s railway.
“Yet the content and tone of the material and certain of the 40 set-piece questions asked is replete with negative inferences and allusions and railway contraction ‘options’.
For example, withdrawal of direct Aberdeen/ Inverness-London services, withdrawal of some or all sleeper trains and slower and less frequent services and station closures.
“Following publication, key government ministers immediately sought to distance themselves from this document. Some have suggested that this was possibly a handy way of softening-up public opinion to the possibility of rail cuts, which government ministers could then veto and claim victory for saving some stations and services, thus taking the pressure off the demands for delivery of the planned improvements and network extensions.” Last Thursday (23 February), Labour MSP Richard Baker called on the transport minister to lift any threat of closure to 11 railway stations in and around Glasgow. Baker was leading a debate in Parliament on the Transport Scotland consultation. Labour’s infrastructure spokesperson said it was “fatally flawed in raising questions it seeks to answer itself” and was “a threat, not an opportunity for our rail services”.
Baker said the proposals of closure in the consultation were one of only a “host of concerns” including higher fares, ending cross border rail services, the sleeper franchise and the separation of profitable and social lines.
Brown told Parliament that there were “no plans to close stations in Glasgow or anywhere else in Scotland”. He added that the consultation had received 1200 written responses which now needed to be reviewed.
The transport minister reiterated “we have no plans to close stations” and said the consultation was an opportunity to address the gap in knowledge.
The holders of the current ScotRail franchise are bullish about their record to date. The company runs more than 2,300 services – up 10 per cent since the franchise was awarded in 2004 – across 1,679 miles of long-distance and commuter lines. It provides 95 per cent of all passenger rail travel within Scotland and the Caledonian Sleeper linking London and Scotland. Services include Edinburgh-Glasgow, one of Europe’s busiest intercity links, and Strathclyde, the UK’s largest commuter network outside London.
“The commitment to partnership, superior service and astute investment is delivering the environmental and economic benefits Scotland deserves,” said managing director Steve Montgomery. “In the past year, despite running 10 per cent more trains than a decade ago, ScotRail’s public performance measure – a combination of punctuality and reliability – has reached record levels. In terms of customer satisfaction, the independent National Passenger Survey shows we outperformed the average of all UK train operators in 30 out of 33 categories.” The National Passenger Survey, published last month put ScotRail’s punctuality and reliability at 86 per cent – five points better than the UK average; value for money at 59 per cent – 13 points better than the UK average; and gave it its highest ever scores in categories including the ‘cleanliness of train interiors’ and ‘toilet facilities’ – up eight points and 11 points respectively year on year.
“These figures are particularly impressive as the survey commenced in September 2010 – following an extraordinarily wet summer which brought severe flooding and more rainfall in two days in August than is normally seen in the entire month,” said Montgomery. “The ratings are a tribute to ScotRail’s workforce, with customer satisfaction with station staff’s handling of requests up 15 points to 92 per cent – six points better than the UK average for train operators.” Montgomery cited a range of investments by ScotRail, in trains, stations, facilities, technology and staff numbers that have improved the travelling environment and experience: “Major projects to enhance trains, facilities and services have led to tangible improvements for customers.” While rising fares cause some travellers to complain, the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) counters that the longstanding government approach to sustaining rail investment is to cut the contribution from taxpayers and increase the share paid for by passengers. ATOC has also launched a new website – www.atoc.org/2012fares – for passengers, explaining why many fares are going up, where money from fares goes and how to save money on rail travel.
Montgomery said: “Our fares are managed in accordance with our franchise agreement and ScotRail’s strategy aims to strike the right balance between the ongoing economic climate in Scotland, market demand – and increased costs, including our fuel bill for trains, up 31 per cent since 2007/08.
“Passenger numbers are at record levels and we will continue to enhance services and products to meet the increasing demand for trail travel.
This has already been clearly demonstrated, from introducing ‘Kids Go Free’ to new services and adding more seats to a greater number of trains than ever before.
“We are also committed to meeting customer demands for high quality punctual services.
We also believe long-term cost savings for the industry and government can be achieved and eagerly anticipate playing our part in delivering that goal.” And a spokesman for FirstGroup added: “Operating the ScotRail franchise is very important to FirstGroup and we fully intend to bid for the next franchise. We agree with the consultation’s ambition for a railway that offers value for money, acts in a coordinated and integrated way, and has passenger interests at its heart.
“We support retaining a single franchise operator for ‘economic’ and ‘social’ rail elements, longer franchise periods, of ten years or more, to allow better long-term planning, investment and improvements, continuing to incentivise the operator to grow the market and deliver improved outcomes, and more closely aligned working between Network Rail and a private operator, to deliver a more efficient, responsive and cost-effective railway.
“Whilst it is appropriate to consider a range of options for the next franchise, it is also worth recognising the current framework has proved successful.
Transport Scotland and First ScotRail have together delivered new rolling stock, improved operational performance, positive customer satisfaction ratings, and a 25 per cent increase in passenger journeys.
“As the current operator of the ScotRail franchise, FirstGroup awaits the outcome of the consultation and the development of the franchising strategy with interest.”