“THEY’RE having a laugh,” said a woman on the freezing platform at Waverley Station, looking around in dismay. Over the tannoy it had been announced that the approaching train for Tweedbank had two carriages. It was rush hour, the previous train had been cancelled and, as a crowd of 100 and more surged towards the doors, we were less at risk of turning into a tin of sardines than becoming mashed potatoes.

Resignation, anxiety and frustration was the mood, as it always is on late and overcrowded services. And, indeed, as it had been when a few weeks earlier we were directed from the empty platform to the bus station, in St Andrews Square, in the dark and rain, for a bus that only a few could squeeze onto.

It’s bad enough when your homeward train doesn’t appear, but far worse when a cancellation or delay means missing a connection, whether to an appointment or to your front door. In the past five days, I – like countless others using the Borders railway – have had to negotiate three cancelled trains, two of them timed to connect with services to Aberdeen and Leuchars, for work. We all now build in buffer time, but what happens, as on Saturday, when the backstop doesn’t appear? It’s simple: travellers either abandon their trip in disgust, or take to the car and fork out for parking charges at the other end.

The perpetual cancellations on the Tweedbank line are a microcosm of the rest of country. Reasons for the non-running of trains range from staff shortages to weather conditions, to a broken train on the line. Very often no explanation is given. When, a few days ago, I tried to find someone with whom I could register a complaint, I was directed to the post at Waverley where the ScotRail manager was on duty, only to find it empty. During the time in which I waited for the next train for my now cutting-it-fine journey, no official appeared. Was he or she in hiding, knowing how irritated passengers were feeling?

Certainly they’d be aware there were a lot of us. According to recent figures, around 70 ScotRail trains a day are cancelled. No wonder frontline staff, dealing with the fall-out of decisions beyond their control, dream of a secret bunker. Nor that a rail ombudsman is being set up to deal with unresolved complaints. As this paper reported a couple of weeks ago, new figures put the number of ScotRail services being cancelled at almost four per cent in the month to mid-October. That’s three times higher than in the first two years of the franchise, when we were promised a transformed service. September’s performance was so woeful, it marked a 20-year low.

It is stating the blindingly obvious to call this unacceptable. At a time when we are being encouraged to be more environmentally friendly, we have a rail network in disarray, so unpunctual and haphazard it simply cannot be relied upon. Only those such as the rugby fans heading to Murrayfield at the weekend are in a position to be philosophical. Wise folk that they are, the squad’s Borders supporters had set off ridiculously early, in their words “to take the first train that arrived”. Not everyone can be so blithe. One woman my husband met recently was almost in tears at yet another cancellation after warnings from her boss for so often arriving late at work.

How can a country run on this basis? You begin to understand why Mussolini was popular. For some it was more important that the trains ran like a Swiss clock than that Italy was in the hands of a homicidal fascist. This is not to make light of ScotRail’s travails. It is, however, to suggest that a train timetable matters more than you might think. When it cannot be trusted, it raises bigger questions about the governance of the country. After all, if our leaders cannot ensure a railway operator does its job, what else is going to the dogs? Those commuters who regularly bear the brunt of the disruption must be sorely tempted to vent their frustration at the ballot box.

So is the answer to renationalise the railways, as the Labour Party would like? Given the mess that privatisation has led to, it is tempting to agree. Yet when you recall the chaos that rail union activity caused, and the stranglehold in which they held the nation, unless safeguards against their monopoly of the industry are put in place, nationalisation is no better an option. A change in ownership does not offer a magic cure. The issue is not of public versus private, but of organisational skill and commitment.

To fix the system is simultaneously childishly simple and fiendishly complicated. It requires timetabling rigour, sophisticated management of staff and rolling stock; and the ability – no, an active willingness – to communicate properly with passengers. Given almost two centuries of railway experience, this should be well within our grasp. It’s not like landing a space probe on Mars – it’s far more important than that.

Read more: Around 70 trains cancelled every day as ScotRail's performance plummets