NEW concerns have been expressed over safety on Scotland's trains as it emerged a government spend on improvements to the nation's rail infrastructure is being 'cut' by £127m.

The reduction, described as "scandalous" by leaders of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), comes three years after the Stonehaven rail disaster that caused the death of three people.

It comes as findings by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the government department responsible for the economic and safety regulation of Britain's railways, show Network Rail in Scotland had made £100m of efficiencies in 2022/23, 17% short of ORR targets.

Network Rail in Scotland, the nationalised body that manages the rail infrastructure, such as the tracks and signals, received £179m by way of rail enhancement grant from the Scottish Government for improvements in 2022/23, according to the ORR.

But the ORR says that means that the forecasted grants received for the five year period between April 2019 and March 2024 would be £771m - £127m less than agreed in a funding letter. This is reportedly due to "wider government funding constraints and slow approvals of projects and release of funds".

It can also be revealed that the Scottish Government rail infrastructure spend that is paid to Network Rail has dropped by nearly £60m (11%) from £532.446m in 2021/22 to £472.965 in 2022/23. But, according to ORR, the funding expected across the five year period was to be around the agreed £2.245bn.

The news comes as publicly funded Network Rail, the agency responsible for the upkeep of infrastructure including tracks and signals, has come under increased pressure over the Carmont tragedy.

Last month, Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) analysis of 20 official recommendations made a year and a half ago in relation to the Stonehaven crash showed that just two have been 'closed' or implemented. 

Driver Brett McCullough, 45, conductor Donald Dinnie, 58, and passenger Christopher Stuchbury, 62, died when the 06:38 high speed Aberdeen to Glasgow Queen Street train left the tracks after hitting washed-out landslide debris near Carmont during heavy rainfall in August 2020. Six other people were injured.

The Herald: Handout photo dated 13/08/20 issued by the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) of the Stonehaven rail crash which was caused by errors in the construction of a drainage system by failed outsourcing giant Carillion, an investigation has found. Issue

The National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) in Scotland has also raised concerns over plans to slash the safety-critical maintenance workforce in Scotland from nearly 2000. The union says that 300 Scots maintenance staff, working within the Scottish and UK government-subsidised Network Rail, could go amidst vacancies.

Network Rail has been looking to slash existing maintenance scheduled tasks by up to 50% through what it calls "better use of technology and data", and reducing the number of manual inspections carried out by teams.

It suggested that it would significantly reduce the safety risk to maintenance staff who have to access the railway infrastructure to undertake these inspections.

Mick Hogg, the RMT Scottish organiser said of the 'cut': "It is absolutely outrageous, scandalous.

"The ramifications of these decisions could be fatal in terms of another Carmont. We need a robust railway that is fit for purpose with investment and jobs.

"We are aware that cuts are on the agenda due to modernisation. That is why there is no agreement in a national dispute. "

Mr Hogg said there were shortages of staff on the ground, sometimes with a couple of people responsible for 100s of miles of rail track and often located in areas at high risk of flooding and landslides.

"It is mission impossible and an accident waiting to happen; a recipe for disaster," he added.

"The question is, have the lessons been learnt from the Carmont rail disaster?"

The Herald:

Earlier this month, Network Rail was fined £6.7m at the high court in Aberdeen after pleading guilty to safety failings over the Stonehaven rail crash.

The crash, the worst accident on Britain’s railways in 18 years, came after debris had washed on to the track from a wrongly built drainage system after heavy rain. Despite the conditions, the driver was not warned to reduce speed.

The RAIB found that the train derailed because it struck debris that had been washed out of a faulty drainage system constructed between 2011 and 2012 by failed outsourcing giant Carillion.

Network Rail’s fine was reduced from £10m because the firm admitted culpability and a series of failings that resulted in the deaths, pleading guilty to a charge covering the period from 1 May 2011 to 12 August 2020.

Investigators made 20 recommendations for the improvement of rail safety in the wake of the crash.

After the court case, Network Rail said it would build upon the “significant changes” it had made since the incident, and that about £1.6bn of its budget over the next four years was dedicated to improving the resilience of the railway due to the climate crisis, with rail bosses in Scotland and elsewhere warning that this posed an increasing threat to infrastructure.

Transport Scotland said while rail safety is reserved to the UK Government, it was a "key priority and we fully expect any required improvements and measures to be implemented".

The Scottish Governments's transport agency said that it "fully understands" the duty of care that all parties involved in designing, constructing and operating the railway have to each other and to the travelling public, and the "duty of cooperation" those parties have to facilitate safe operation.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said : “The Scottish Government has fully funded the Operation, Maintenance and Renewal of Network Rail’s Scottish infrastructure as determined by the independent rail industry economic and safety regulator, the Office of Rail and Road.

“Our rail enhancement programme continues to invest across the rail network in Scotland – with new stations delivered at Inverness Airport and Reston, Barrhead electrification to be completed by December this year, Levenmouth railway and East Linton station to open next year and East Kilbride electrification to follow.

“Funding for rail infrastructure does vary from year to year, reflecting the amounts determined by the Office of Rail and Road and the development and delivery phase of Network Rail’s various major projects in any particular year.”

Network Rail has been approached for comment.