THINGS don't look good for ScotRail. Latest figures show that trains on a third of routes are late more often than they are on time. Figures also show that at stations like Arbroath, Glasgow High Street and Ardrossan Harbour only 10% are running on time.

We've also learned that the Dutch company Nederlandse Spoorwegen, which owns ScotRail operators Abellio, admitted Scotland's trains are run for the benefit of commuters in Holland.

Documents show the contract is used to make healthy profits on “limited investment”. The boss of Nederlandse Spoorwegen said passengers in the Netherlands must benefit from the firm’s work overseas - and there were calls for the deal to be scrapped and the rail service returned to public ownership.

All this makes terrible reading for passengers, but perhaps the worst they have to endure is the hiked prices and rush hour crush that is causing commuter misery across Scotland. Despite long running outcry by commuters on Scottish social media, there is no published data that gives us a measure of how bad overcrowding is. Scottish Labour wants to see figures published.

Scottish Labour transport spokesperson Neil Bibby said: “Passengers are being kept in the dark about the scale of overcrowding on Scotland’s trains.”

Bibby says figures are regularly published for England. “The SNP, claimed this was a world leading deal for Scottish passengers. SNP Transport Minister Humza Yousaf needs to ensure that overcrowding is monitored and reported on a regular basis as a matter of course from now on. Passengers deserve as much information as possible.”

To investigate just how bad Scotland's trains are for commuters, in the last week the Sunday Herald rode some of what - on social media at least - are described as the worst lines, and talked to people who took them. What emerged from journeys on just three troubled lines - Glasgow to East Kilbride, Edinburgh to North Berwick and Linlithgow to Edinburgh - is a tale of overcrowding, cancellations, long queues for tickets, broken ticket machines, and reduced carriages on trains.

A traveller on the North Berwick line into Edinburgh described Scottish trains as a “third world service”. Gerry Quinn, a user of the East Kilbride line declared: “There’s been a lot of talk in the press about Jeremy Corbyn not being able to get a seat and having to sit on the floor, but you couldn’t even sit on the floor on these trains. There’s no room.”

Glasgow-East Kilbride

Platform 11, Glasgow Central Station, is crowded enough at 18.18 on a Wednesday to merit a long train, but what pulls up is a two carriage train. Passengers grumble the train used to be four carriages long until just a few months ago. There’s a rush when the doors open and it is soon standing room only. The aisle fills up, then the doorwell, with the bodies of weary commuters who would all rather get a seat for the ride home. “It’s a standing joke,” quips one passenger perched on the luggage rack looking up from his tablet. “No pun intended. It’s just annoying when you’re standing up for the whole of the way home at the end of a long day, particularly if you’ve been standing up all day.”

The East Kilbride line is one of a number of commuter routes that throw up the complaint of 'short-formed services': trains which were once four or more carriages, now cut down to two or three.

Barry Smith a social media campaigner who retweets complaints under the #scotfail hashtag tells me he believes ScotRail “knowingly and regularly under provide services for people.” He cites “over 200 people being served tickets in Glasgow by only two people”, broken and unusable ticket machines, “smartcards that are smarter than the untrained staff who don’t have the training to use or validate them”, and “constantly cancelled trains leading to mass over-crowding”.

On the 18.18 to East Kilbride Nishal Paneandee stands wearily in the crowded doorwell. “I feel frustration,” he says. “I pay for a season ticket and it doesn’t feel worth what I’m shelling out for it. Trains cancelled - for whatever reason, usually signal problems. First thing in the morning, you’re trying to get to work and it’s hard to see why they have so few carriages. I come in from Clarkston and it’s packed by the time I get on.”

Further down in the carriage, Carol Campbell, looks glad to have got a seat at a table. “Poor and unreliable,” is how she describes the service. “It seems like the service has decreased since Abellio took over. More and more people are having to stand.”

Some say they try to avoid using the services if at all possible. Gerry Quinn says the “service is just not fit for purpose any more...You’re squashed in. You can’t get up and down the aisles. If there was an accident people would have no chance. I’ve seen people not being able to get off the train, because it’s so jam packed they can’t get to the door. ”

On two occasions, he says, he has seen people passing out, and his wife has seen a third.

East Kilbride MSP Linda Fabiani is keeping a watchful eye on complaints. She says: “The inadequacy of the single-track rail line from East Kilbride to Glasgow Central has long been a concern, but the lack of carriages on peak-time trains has made the commute unbearable for many travellers. East Kilbride is the largest town in Scotland, and this line goes straight through the commuter belt into the city – two carriages is ludicrous. People are being left on platforms, having to stand all the way and sometimes even leave the train early because the overcrowding is so intense that they feel ill.”

ScotRail Abellio managing director Phil Verster acknowledges that there is overcrowding on some lines, before outlining future plans: “We have a massive programme to address overcrowding and we are now close to getting the receipt of our 'Class 385' trains. They arrive literally in August/September of next year.”

Currently, he notes that there are around 800 carriages in service, and in the next two and a half years another around 200 will be added. Verster said that by the time of the timetable change in May 2019 "we will have 24% more capacity. It’s gigantic”.

That change, however, is almost a year away. What is being done to get more carriages onto the East Kilbride line now? Verster says: “We’ve really put every possible train that we have available into service...The East Kilbride would see benefits as we start to get new fleets arriving."

For many, though, a year is too long to wait – particularly when it means squeezing, day after day, into uncomfortable, and, many believe, dangerous trains. Safety is one of the biggest concerns of Barry Smith, who runs the@scot_fail twitter account, a bot that retweets #scotfail tweets, and which, since June this year has issued 1252 tweets. He worries over the current lack of regulation around crowding. “There surely is a breakdown in safety regulations,” he says, “or just a plain and simple disregard for them." He worries that attention won't be paid to overcrowding until "an accident has occurred and people have been seriously hurt, or someone has paid the ultimate price".

But Verster sees no problem with such a 'cram ‘em-in' approach. The Office of Rail and Road states “there is no conclusive evidence linking crowding on trains with anything other than low level health and safety risks to individual passengers”.

Verster says: “If people can get into a train comfortably and stand, it is still safe. There is no aspect of the loading that is inherently unsafe.”

Nevertheless, people feel unsafe. “I’ll just be honest with you,” Verster replies. ”I don’t take any pleasure from the fact that some of the trains are as busy as they are, and it is my absolute priority to get through the next eleven months by helping our customers as much as possible, give them as much information as possible to make journeys on trains that are less busy. But we are focussing on getting the new trains and the refurbished trains into service to give us the capacity we really need.”

It’s hard to get data on overcrowding. When the Sunday Herald requested a figure for the number of trains that were running with reduced numbers of carriages, ScotRail came back with a different statistic: the claim that over the last year they “have provided 99.6% of the contracted number of seats we are required to provide across the ScotRail network”.

Yet, research published in July shows that complaints received by ScotRail Abellio have risen by 38% over the period of the year leading up to March 31, and among these complaints were many regarding lack of sufficient seating.

Edinburgh-North Berwick

In Musselburgh, the early morning platform of the station looks quiet until minutes before the train from North Berwick to Edinburgh comes in. Grant Buchanan is one of the commuters there early, keen to make sure he gets on the 8.13, which, he says, is all too frequently only two or three carriages long, and sometimes so crowded not everyone can fit in. Once a week, he says, he finds there isn’t enough space, and he has to take a later train. Recently, a train was cancelled and he had to work for part of the morning at home. “You’ll see it’s quite unpleasant when you’re on the train,” he says. "You’re squashed up against each other.”

Buchanan believes that this service is one that’s sacrificed if the network is suffering for other reasons. “Often when it says that it’s cancelled it's because of a late running train elsewhere, a knock on effect.”

When the train pulls up it’s three carriages long, and there’s little space for passengers – it’s standing room only before the doors open. “Like being on the tube in London,” is how Musselburgh resident and green campaigner Jason Rose described it, “which is not what you would expect in East Lothian.”


Another route which is frequently a source of social media complaint is the line between Linlithgow and Edinburgh. Calum MacKinnon is one regular commuter on it and remembers that even before Abellio took over Scotrail the journey was already a trial. “I never the thought the service could get any worse. But since Abellio took over there has been a steady and steep decline in the service and I dread what the winter months are likely to hold...Every day is a lottery, between delayed services and short carriages and cancelled services.”

Rush hour services, he says, are regularly run with only two carriages. “On the way in there's frequently no space left for commuters at Linlithgow. On the return journey any poor soul hoping to get on at Edinburgh Park has little or no chance and when the train reaches Linlithgow it's a challenge to get off as people are crammed in.” Sometimes, he noted, when the services have been running late, Abellio have removed stops, so trains no longer stop at Linlithgow, Polmont or Falkirk. “This leaves hundreds of commuters stranded, with the prospect of then trying to get on the overcrowded following Dunblane train.”

Rob Bruce, a fellow traveller on this service, shares similar grievances. He observes that rains regularly arrive “with three carriages rather than six”. ScotRail, he says, “seem to be happy to charge a premium to herd us around in conditions that would even upset animal welfare officers.” Bruce travels by train, he says, because he can’t drive. He objects to posters and webpages suggesting better, less busy trains to travel on. As Bruce puts it: “They can create webpages listing less busy trains all they like, but ultimately, how many people will get away with saying to their bosses “is it ok if I come in at 10:30am every day since that’s when I can get a less busy train?” Very few I expect.”

Details that Abellio is using £1 million of funds from Scotrail to better the Dutch rail passenger experience have not helped public perception. “The icing on the cake,” says one commuter, “is the recent revelations that Abellio is milking £1m profit a month out of the network. The admission that they're able to do this with "minimal investment" tells you it all.” An Abellio spokesperson, however, said: “No funds have been transferred to the Netherlands, and claims to the contrary are entirely wrong.”

Verster is keen to bring things back into perspective. His point is that Abellio couldn’t have enlarged its fleet any faster. “When you take over a franchise,” he says, “there’s a certain lead time that no matter how hard you squeeze, you need to place a contract, the train builders need to start. It’s not as if we could have done two somersaults and it would have been quicker.”

“People often think,” he adds, “that we have trains standing doing nothing in a yard somewhere. Please give people an assurance that we run every possible train that we can run. The only trains that are not in service are trains that must go through essential maintenance.”

Meanwhile, the Scottish government acknowledges that all is not going to plan. Transport secretary Humza Yousaf admits: “ScotRail’s performance this year has not been at the level the Scottish Government demands and expects which is why I have taken decisive action in calling for the operator to deliver an improvement plan outlining how they will improve passenger services going forward.”

For now though, for many on the busiest commuter lines there’s still the dread of the the morning commute and the evening rush hour - the sardine-tin crush, or the possibility of a crowded train with no space for them at all.