Should the ScotRail booze ban remain in place? Rail bosses have been consulting on what to do about it. Speaking to a Holyrood committee this week, they revealed that commuters were split roughly 50/50 on whether to continue the ban, which was introduced three years ago during the pandemic in a bid to curtail spread of the virus.

You can see why. A booze ban on rails doesn’t stop antisocial behaviour. But it does make getting on a train feel like less of a lottery.

Anyone who has regularly taken a late train between Glasgow and Edinburgh will have a few lurid tales to tell about drunken behaviour, some of which you wouldn’t want to read over your Cornflakes.

But you don’t have to be a night-time commuter to appreciate the upsides of banning alcohol on trains. You can find yourself stuck in someone else’s party at any time of day.

I spent decades travelling on trains nearly every day. Among the journeys that stick in my mind are the ones where a few people were roaring drunk and everyone else was more or less sober – and trapped.

A typical example would be the time I was on an Edinburgh-London service with not one but two hen parties. We other passengers were in a disco sandwich between two clashing tunes played at high volume, with additional vocals provided by the hens.

The Herald: Hen parties can be joyous - or a pain, depending on your viewHen parties can be joyous - or a pain, depending on your view (Image: free)

It can be a lovely moment on trains when music or sports fans sing in unison, full of high spirits and bonhomie. But it’s less lovely when the singing is competitive, the mood turns sour and people start confronting other passengers. One belligerent hen, clutching a cocktail, started stalking up and down the carriage, demanding to know why other passengers weren’t joining in. It can really ruin the Friday vibe, that sort of thing.

The impact of drinking can be considerably worse on certain late services. The fact that booze is banned on ScotRail trains doesn’t prevent the trouble – people drink before they board, which is often more of a problem – but it does send a signal that this is public transport, not an extension of the pub.

Would I feel more confident taking my child on an evening service with the ban in place than without it? I would.

But of course, there is another side to this. Some argue that it’s not alcohol itself that’s the problem, but the folk who consume it. And in a way, that’s true. If everyone drank only a modest amount and did it discreetly, there would be no need to talk about banning anything. Many people understandably feel that they shouldn’t be prevented from quietly having their can of Marks & Spencer G&T just because a minority of eejits are antisocial.

There’s also a challenge with enforcing the ban. The Scottish Conservatives say British Transport Police and ScotRail have told them it’s unworkable. People still drink, in other words, just more surreptitiously.

There’s also a serious question of personal freedom and the intrusion of the nanny state. But does this really apply here? After all, the train is an enclosed space. When you’re on a train, you’re effectively trapped with whomever happens to be in your carriage – bad luck if it’s pushy Stella the chief hen. In a pub or bar, or in the street, you can walk away; not in a railway carriage. So surely some collective responsibility applies.


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Previously, it was permitted to drink on trains but only after 10am and before 9pm. For harassed rail travellers, the 9pm watershed seemed like a good move at the time.

We could go back to that halfway house – it did seem to calm things down compared to the 24-hour free-for-all that existed before – but if it’s to be a return to permitting day time drinking on trains, then there needs to be much better enforcement, both to ensure people don’t drink after 9pm and to deal with people who are making other passengers’ lives uncomfortable. With so few on-train staff, is this realistic?

There’s a wider question though: what sort of signal would it send to relax the ban now? ScotRail policy would be going in the opposite direction to public health measures, where the drive is to tighten up policy on harmful drinking.

ScotRail leaders implicitly acknowledge this, noting that what happens to the ban on alcohol on trains is a decision for Scottish ministers. The First Minister Humza Yousaf has said ministers would consider reversing the ban after speaking to police, unions and the rail operator if the evidence pointed in that direction, but that particular weight would be given to the voices of women and girls who can often feel unsafe when it comes to antisocial behaviour.

That’s the right approach. He should, though, also listen to the voices of older people and children. They have as much right to feel safe on trains as anyone else and can find lairy antisocial behaviour alarming and frightening.

The Herald: Alcohol is banned on ScotRail trainsAlcohol is banned on ScotRail trains (Image: free)

As always with problems caused by drinking, no one measure is the answer. People can still be found drinking on trains in spite of the ban, and keeping it won’t turn the 11.30pm from Edinburgh to Glasgow into a jaunt with Thomas the Tank Engine. But having it does send a valuable signal about what is and what is not socially acceptable. It says: this is a train, not a party bus. It says: children, lone women and elderly people use this train and have the right to feel safe.

Reversing it would seem to say: we’ve given up, so do what you like.

I daresay I’ll think twice about all this next time I’m on a ScotRail train and feel like having a glass of wine.

But then, perhaps, I’ll remember that if booze had been banned on more trains, I might not have had to clear mojito off my favourite shoes sloshed from the glass of an inebriated hen travelling at 100mph out of Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Let’s keep the ban, flawed as it is. It has its uses.