The trains need to go where people want, when people want and at a reasonable price. This in essence is our approach to rail travel and should surely be the “mission statement” of those in charge of it.

On the surface the omens are good. The Scottish Government, mindful of its obligations to rein back climate change, has a target of reducing the distance travelled by car by a fifth and doubling the number of rail journeys from its pre-Covid level.

However, ScotRail, due to come under public control from tomorrow, is going ahead with cuts to its services and one has to ask whether that is likely to encourage erstwhile railway passengers to return to trains, particularly those with access to a car.

Not only will the number of trains be cut but so will the number of hours that ticket offices will be open. It is argued that a growing number of passengers will want to use electronic ticketing, and doubtless this is so, although there is always the risk of no signal or a mobile phone running out of power at a critical moment.

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However there are still many who prefer to buy a paper ticket, perhaps because they need it as a receipt for travel expenses or because the paper tickets appear to work better at the ticket gates.

Many stations, of course, have self-service ticket machines to compensate for lack of staff, or to cope with sheer passenger numbers, but these can be unreliable. The one at Leuchars, the third busiest station in Fife, for example, is notorious for not working properly during strong winds, of which the exposed Leuchars platform enjoys many.

And more fundamentally, a locked ticket office often also means a locked waiting room and locked toilets. With the best will in the world, sometimes trains run late, and while it’s all very well buying and downloading an electronic ticket on a mobile device, that does not compensate for being stuck outside on an exposed wet and windy platform, with an inaccessible convenience and no alternative facilities anywhere near. Is this really the way to attract people out of cars on to trains? One fears the answer might be “no”.

Transport Scotland has announced that its three priorities are decarbonising the rail network, providing better connections between Scotland’s main cities and enabling transfer of freight from road to rail. Nobody could argue with decarbonising the rail network, and we look forward to long-overdue electrification projects, such as Edinburgh-Aberdeen, finally coming to fruition. That said, though, it is very disappointing that the Levenmouth branch, now supposed to begin running in 2024, will not be electrified from the start as originally intended, and also that Transport Scotland are dragging their feet on signing off the business case, further delaying the line’s opening.

HeraldScotland: Railfuture's proposed new stationsRailfuture's proposed new stations

While better links between the seven cities are to be welcomed, how does that fit with reduced services between them? What about any new cities created as part of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations which, if they have attained such a status, merit an equal standard of service, and one of the candidates, St Andrews, is not even on the railway. As it stands, the proposal is horribly redolent of reports from Beeching to Serpell, with the emphasis on Intercity travel where it was assumed that anybody who really wanted to travel by rail would make their way by unspecified means to the nearest main line rail hub, which could be many miles away.

The aim to transfer freight from road to rail is admirable. However this brings in ports, far too many of which are not served by rail. There is talk of freeports, sometimes called greenports, but as it stands several of the candidates such as Leith, Port of Rosyth and Cairnryan, are not on the railway, suggesting they will be served only by lorries.

Places such as these, which generate travel, must be connected to the railway, whether this requires simply a spur line such as for Leith and Rosyth, or something more major such as rebuilding a line from Dumfries to Stranraer and then extending it six miles north to serve Cairnryan.

It is disappointing that while we have heard many calls for the A75, recognised as inadequate to serve the Loch Ryan ports, to be improved, those voices calling for a reinstated railway seem to be restricted to campaigning volunteers, rather than the government transport hierarchy.


Ongoing developments should include rail provision or enhancement as a matter of course, rather than trying to add it later. Is it too much to ask that the revamp of Ardrossan will include extending the railway line to the new ferry berths, thus considerably shortening the luggage-laden foot passengers’ forced march?

At the other end of the country, thinking strategically, what about reviving the century-old proposal to build a line from Garve to the major port of Ullapool, currently only accessible by road?

In contrast, a much shorter project would be required to extend the line from Thurso down to the ferry port at Scrabster. Why does a railway journey from Oban to Fort William at the other end of Loch Linnhe involve a long detour eastwards to Crianlarich and back again, and surely it is not beyond the wit of humanity or Transport Scotland to construct a rail connection between the Clyde ferry terminals of Largs and Wemyss Bay that does not involve going all the way to Paisley.

Railfuture Scotland has a list of 50 essential new stations on the existing network plus extension, such as Tweedbank-Hawick-Carlisle, Perth-Forfar-Laurencekirk, Aberdeen-Ellon-Peterhead/Fraserburgh, Alloa-Dunfermline and also a line to the major destination of St Andrews. In cities, some form of rail service is needed on the Edinburgh South Suburban Line and Glasgow desperately needs the Crossrail Link, to bring about seamless travel across Scotland.

It is odd that on the one hand the Scottish Government is urging people to switch from cars to trains, yet on the other, its transport arm, soon to take over the running of ScotRail services, appears to be doing its best to make rail a less attractive option.

It will take more than a handful of new stations and the odd restored branch line to bring about the modal shift required to meet our emission-reduction targets. Only a radical transformation of the rail network, plugging the gaps (such as building the Dornoch rail bridge) and connecting strategic destinations (such as St Andrews), can bring about anything approaching doubling train journeys and reducing car mileage by 20 per cent.

Yes, this will take a lot of time and a huge amount of money. Many of the improvements I have described, though, should have been made years ago. As the ambition is to transfer travel from road to rail, then surely the budget must follow suit. While people still need to travel – you might be able to work from home but taking a holiday via Zoom is strangely unsatisfying – this must be done in as environmentally-friendly a way as possible, which means the train.

The costs of dealing with the consequences of not bringing about a massive shift from the private car will be considerably worse.

Jane Ann Liston is the Secretary of Railfuture Scotland.