How will a worker on average pay feel about not being able to get to or from work because of a strike by train drivers who earn £52,000 a year basic (around twice the median Scottish annual wage)?

That was the question posed by the presenters of BBC Scotland last week as a summer of rail chaos looms. Well, the answer, strangely, is that most of them won’t notice. Why? Because they’re already going to work by car.

Some figures: According to Transport Scotland, 65 per cent of all journeys in Scotland are made by car and only 2% by rail. For travel to work, 68% of workers go by car against 5% by rail. And these are pre-Covid figures from 2019.

Rail usage collapsed further during the pandemic because people felt, quite rightly, that they were more at risk in a crowded railway carriage than in a vehicle with their own family. But those now returning to rail are finding that it isn’t there any more because of service cuts.

Under the new “temporary” timetable, caused by the overtime ban, a Glaswegian traveller won’t be able to get home after 10pm from Edinburgh, 7pm from Dundee, 6pm from Aberdeen, and local services will be patchy from 8pm. It’s a disaster for hospitality, sporting events, Edinburgh’s festivals, and music venues.

The blame game

AS Nicola Sturgeon is beginning to realise, having ScotRail in public ownership means that everything that goes wrong, from leaves on the line to the lack of train drivers, becomes the Government’s fault. The unions have rejected a 2.2% offer and will be looking for 11% this summer to match inflation.

The First Minister can’t just order the unions and ScotRail bosses to sort it out – or rather she can, but no-one will let her get away with that now that it is in state hands. The rail unions now have greater leverage because they know the travelling public will blame the Government, not some foreign-owned company, for delays.

If Ms Sturgeon gives in to the rail unions she will find that all public sector workers – teachers, council workers etc

– will want 11% too. This will put huge strain on public finances. But the crisis for the railways is about far more than an industrial dispute.

When I hear Scottish politicians talking about rail, I often wonder if they realise how few people actually use it. The service is caught in a vice between declining passenger revenues and rising costs.

As anyone with a family knows, rail travel is prohibitively expensive. Yet huge sums of public money are already devoted to it.

Pre-Covid, Transport Scotland’s budget bill for rail alone was £989 million for 2019 and £1,264m in 2020. That excluded addition emergency Covid subsidies. Half goes in direct subsidy to ScotRail the rest goes to fund Network Rail for track and renewal and maintenance.

You might ask why is the Scottish taxpayer spending such a colossal sum on a service that is only used for 2% of journeys?

Engine of change

THE usual answer is that the Scottish Government is determined to get people out of their cars for environmental reasons, but clearly not many are doing so.

There are three million vehicles on Scottish roads, the vast majority of them private cars. That is a very large political constituency, but one which has remained largely silent in recent years.

Those 68% who use their cars to travel to work often have little alternative because the rail service is patchy and expensive. Car-dependent workers, many of them in caring professions, are being beaten around the head by record petrol and diesel prices at the pumps, of which the majority of the cost goes to the Government in taxes.

They are also facing a workplace parking levy. They need viable alternatives. A transport system that goes where they want to go, in comfort and at a competitive price.

However, the Greens, who exert a huge influence on Scottish Government policy, want cars to be banned.

For them, public transport is a moral issue: a matter of showing that car drivers are bad people who don’t care about the environment and should be taxed off the roads. It is a punitive approach to transport policy. It is also failing dismally and causing deep resentment.

Many people, myself included, like to go by train, not just to save the planet. You don’t get stuck in jams and can do a bit of work or read a book, but then I’m privileged and can afford the fares. Anyone using Scotland’s busiest route from Glasgow to Edinburgh at peak times will laugh.

The way to encourage more people to use the railways is to give them an incentive by making it cheaper. At present, five adults can travel by car to and from Edinburgh for less than a single person’s off peak ticket.

For the price of ScotRail’s anytime single return of £27.60, announced in January (fares are cut this month as a nationalisation teaser rate) they could probably travel by Rolls-Royce and still have change.

The private car is not going to go away. SUVs are rightly going the way of the dodo, but we are entering a new age of environmental private transport.

Electric cars are even cheaper to run than petrol and diesel, and the marginal cost of travelling 100 miles is negligible if you charge your vehicle at home.

There is a new generation of intermediate vehicles, electric bikes, and self-driving taxis.

Travel tariff

THE only way to get people out of their cars is to make train travel competitive. One way would be to apply a land-based equivalent of the road equivalent tariff (RET). Many of Scotland’s ferry services set their prices to ensure that it would cost no more to travel the equivalent distance by road.

Transport Scotland gets a rate per mile calculated by the RAC and applies that to Mull or the Hebrides. If it can be done for ferries, there seems no obvious reason why RET could not be applied to trains.

But as civil servants like to say – such a policy would be “courageous minister”. Such a road equivalent scheme would require vast public subsidy, perhaps doubling the £1 billion a year that the railways already consume – at least initially. But in the longer term, if people started using trains for 65% of journeys instead of 2%, then the ticket revenues would increase accordingly.

At any rate, time is running out for the railways. Let’s face it: train travel is inflexible, uncomfortable and slow. It is essentially a 19th-century mode of transport which has never, in this country at least, been brought up to date.

We have a clunking service, priced out and vulnerable to producer capture.

A series of damaging strikes, and the following service cuts and fare increases, will make it even less attractive, in Government hands than it was in the bad old days of FirstGroup and Abellio.

I’m afraid that NatRail is in a death spiral, and Nicola Sturgeon will have to work miracles to make this the age of the train.