THIS is a passenger announcement: stand by for a major debate on the thorny issue of whether or not to ban the consumption of alcohol on trains.
As The Herald reports today, it is to be outlawed on all ScotRail services between 9pm and 10am. What amounts to a partial blanket ban is a compromise that risks pleasing nobody. However, that is not necessarily a reason for rejecting it.
As the Scottish Government admits freely, minimum pricing cannot work on its own. Unless Scottish attitudes towards drunkenness can be altered fundamentally, comparatively minor adjustments in price are unlikely to be effective. The whole culture around heavy drinking needs to be changed.
Could an alcohol ban on trains form part of that cultural change? A wide-ranging consultation on the issue produced no consensus. Many individuals favoured an outright ban, citing the impact of drink-fuelled anti-social behaviour on other passengers. By contrast, organisations generally supported moderate, responsible drinking on trains, with action focused on actions to control the anti-social minority.
There is widespread support for the current alcohol bans on trains travelling to and from major sporting events and some concerts. The main objection to a blanket ban is that it risks punishing the responsible majority for the actions of a boorish minority, while perhaps missing the main target: those who are drunk and rowdy before they embark. The same applies to the harassment of women and disabled passengers, which is often fuelled by drink. A blanket ban also would remove part of the appeal of rail travel for those who choose rail over driving precisely so that they can enjoy a drink. And it would deny to foreign tourists the chance to enjoy Scotland's national drink as they trundle by train to our famous visitor destinations.
The consultation also raised reservations about how a ban would operate on cross-border services, as well as the impact on the viability of rail catering services and sleeper lounge cars.
The advantage of a partial ban, covering later evening and early morning services, is that it gets around most of these objections. Cross-border services are excluded. Tourists and rail catering services will be affected only marginally. On the other hand, two of the biggest bugbears – loudmouth drunks on Anglo-Scottish routes and young people preloading before hitting pubs and clubs at weekends – will be virtually untouched by these proposals.
The elephant in the carriage in this debate is enforcement. As many long-suffering passengers can bear witness, bans and restrictions can only be effective if they are rigorously enforced. Will train conductors and British Transport Police have the resources and back-up necessary to implement and enforce such a ban when they struggle already to control anti-social behaviour on Scotland's trains?
An alcohol ban on trains is appropriate if its links with anti-social behaviour can be demonstrated by objective evidence. This partial ban is justified precisely because it can be used to conduct a detailed assessment of those links and abandoned if they prove to be tenuous or illusory. That is why it should be reviewed 12 months after its introduction.
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