LATE trains, overcrowding, not enough seating, not enough carriages. Many rail travellers, as the petitions and protests of the past few weeks demonstrate, blame the current crisis in Scotland’s rail service solely on its operator ScotRail owned by the company Abellio. However, a growing number of campaigners also believe the chaos is down to the government agency Transport Scotland too.
Roddy McDougall of campaign-group Railfuture Scotland said: “You have to look at Transport Scotland. They’re the ones that put the franchise agreement together and they did not anticipate the growth in railway usage.”
One of the problems, campaigners observe, is that Transport Scotland has repeatedly over a long period under-forecast passenger numbers. They also note that, in spite of ScotRail’s current planned fleet expansions, the rail service looks set continue to fail to deliver a capacity to match increased demand. In the last decade annual passenger journeys increased by 35%, though capacity only rose by 10%. Even the current plan to increase capacity by 23% by 2019 is unlikely to cope with what is predicted to be a 50% rise in some areas between 2012 and 2023.
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"Transport Scotland," said McDougall, "see their job as managing the existing system as best they can, but no one is looking at expanding the system."
Behind the current problems, said McDougall, is a “failure in forecasting”. Repeatedly, lines are built and stations opened, but passenger usage wildly exceeds that which has been forecast. “Of all the new stations,” he said, “that have opened in the last 25 years, half of them in Strathclyde, most have vastly exceeded predicted numbers. When the line to Alloa station was re-opened...the prediction was that it would draw 155,000 passengers a year. But by the second year it was used by over 400,000 passengers. The problem is that the predictions were wrong.”
This under-forecasting has been compounded, observed McDougall, by the lack of sufficient rolling stock - an issue that should, he believes, have been tackled in the initial franchise agreement. “Transport Scotland should have made sure that the franchise held on to all the rolling stock until after replacements were in service.”
Some trains, he noted, were removed even before Abellio took over the franchise. However, many within the industry, question whether it would even have been possible to get more trains. One of the problems has been an overall lack of rolling stock within the train leasing companies that have owned and controlled the railways in the UK since privatisation.
Tom Thorburn, chair of Rail Action Group East Scotland (RAGES), echoed concerns over under-forecasting.“There’s not been a noticeable change in the number of carriages on the line but passenger numbers are changing. They were even boasting that they were. We keep hearing increases in passenger numbers well-publicised of the order of 4% a year.”
The low forecasts there have been for recent station and line re-openings, Thorburn said, are a particular concern. “I’ve brought it to the attention of the government and the consultant companies that do these predictions, saying, ‘Sorry but you’re using an out-of-date model’. We’ve told Transport Minister after Transport Minister about this issue – the predictions are consistently wrong. Some of the stations on the Borders Railway have outstripped footfall predictions by 200%. The Borders Railway achieved its annual figure in three months. The result is there has been mass overcrowding on peak services on the Borders Railway.”
Reacting to this latest wave of criticisms, Transport Minister Humza Yousaf told the Sunday Herald that he was piling pressure on ScotRail Abellio. The train operator, he said, must meet the stringent targets set for them, and he has triggered an improvement plan to ensure that happens. This action was prompted by revelations that one in three trains was not arriving on time, and that ScotRail Abellio were not meeting many of their benchmarks, including those for seating, toilets, service announcements, reservations and passenger capacity. Yousaf declared the failure of ScotRail Abellio to meet its targets “unacceptable”. Overcrowding, he noted, was one of the biggest complaints he was receiving over social media.
“I understand why people are getting upset,” he said. "I use the railway myself. I use it at peak times. And I understand that there is an issue of over-crowding. That’s why this is the first time ever that an improvement plan has been requested. It’s a formal mechanism under the franchise, never been asked before, wasn’t asked in the previous franchise, so therefore I’ve instructed it because I’m just not happy at the unacceptable level of service to the passenger.”
He added: “What I’ve been saying to them is it’s about time you got back to basics. The bells and the whistles on the trains are great, the wifi, the sockets, the nice seats, are all good. But what we need to do is get back to capacity issues, reliability, not skipping stops when it’s unnecessary.”
On forecasting problems, Yousaf said: “We do need to review our forecasting methodologies. So I’ve instructed Transport Scotland to do that – to review how they do their passenger forecasts. Forecasting in fairness isn’t an exact science – but in terms of the Borders Railway it was way off.”
However, bad forecasting, he said, was not what he believed was “behind the current over-crowding problems”.
Currently, he noted, attempts are being made to address the overcrowding issue – one of them being an increase in the number of trains. “We’re putting on extra trains right now as we speak,” Yousaf added.
According to Transport Scotland seven additional electric trains are being introduced this year to the Strathclyde region. Three of them are already in service, and have been refurbished. A fourth fully refurbished unit is being put into service this week, and the final three are planned for service introduction by the end of the year. Passengers on the troubled, over-crowded East Kilbride line should see some relief in the form of fresh capacity in the next couple of weeks, since ScotRail is finalising the return to service of a train that was severely damaged by flooding last year .
However, for commuters still turning up to squeeze onto rush hour trains of just two short carriages, news of these few new trains may be little comfort. However, said Yousaf, Abellio is trying to address that other hated problem for commuters - tickets queues so long you miss your train home. New “queue-busting” measures are being planned, such as “overcrowding teams”.
Yousaf predicted that there would be improvement in train times and “on some services in terms of the overcrowding and capacity issues. But,” he added, “it will not be solved in a few months [so] that suddenly nobody will be standing on any trains whatsoever. I simply wouldn’t make that promise because it would be undeliverable.”
Transport Scotland, he promised, will shortly publish the Abellio improvement plan and he does expect to see targets hit over the coming months. “The point of bringing in an improvement plan," he said, "is that there must be improvement. At the end of the financial year, which is when the plan runs to, if there isn’t sufficient improvement that are serious consequences. But as I say, I’ve been speaking to ScotRail. They understand that. They understand how serious this is. They’re not taking it lightly.”
Looking to the future and the ever-growing passenger demand, Phil Verster, managing director of ScotRail Abellio said: "The big change that we're introducing now - with the 23% of additional capacity that's going to come in in the next few years - will give us enough headroom and enough capacity to manage demand and to deliver capacity for our customers for the next 5-10 years, and during that period of time, depending on how demand grows, we will continue to adjust fleet sizes. "
The gravy train
Abellio is owned by Nederlandse Spoorwegen, the Dutch national train-operator. Accounts showed that profits were £1 million per month last year. Abellio ScotRail also received a Revenue Grant from Transport Scotland of £219 million, and £240 million in passenger income. Recently Transport Scotland also announced £3 million of funding for, among other things, new ticket machines.
Nearly 15,000 have signed a petition to make Scotrail bosses improve the service "or strip them of their contract" and a further 5,000 have signed one to re-nationalise the train service. Many protested against Abellio outside the SECC yesterday. Among them was artist Ellie Harrison, who declared: “Investing in public transport is essential for expanding our country's economy, addressing inequality and social exclusion, reducing toxic levels of air pollution and tackling climate change. It is far too important to be left to the whim of the market.” The current franchise is not up for renewal till 2025.
Scotrail By Numbers
0 - the number of additional diesel trains available for lease in the UK from the rolling stock leasing companies at the start of the Abellio franchise
£370 million – the deal made for the production of the fleet of 70 Hitachi trains currently being built in Japan and England
Autumn 2017 – the date until which we will have to wait before the first Hitachi trains are in service
806 – trains currently in service
4 – the number of refurbished trains recently put into service on the Glasgow suburban route
25 years – the duration over which the train operator will have to keep paying the lease for the Hitachi trains before it owns them
£150 million – the profits last year of the rolling stock companies which lease the trains to the UK train operators
£1 million – the monthly profit made by ScotRail Abellio
£219 million - the revenue grant ScotRail Abellio received from Transport Scotland last year
51% - the growth Network Rail predicts in Edinburgh rail commuters between 2012 and 2023
226% - the growth Network Rail predicts in Aberdeen morning rail commuters by 2043