Alan Simpson: Welcome to Scotrail, the world class railway from the 1970's

·4-min read
Alan Simpson: Welcome to Scotrail, the world class railway from the 1970's
Alan Simpson: Welcome to Scotrail, the world class railway from the 1970's

IN the classic TV detective show Life on Mars, DCI Sam Tyler, played by John Simms, has a car crash in 2006 and when he wakes up has been catapulted back to 1973.

It’s fair to say that things have changed in the force in the intervening years and in particular, he is not impressed by the antics of his boss, DCI Gene Hunt played by Phil Glenister.

The series, with the classic David Bowie track as its theme tune, was a great romp and brought back to life the grim state of the UK and the attitudes that prevailed at the time.

The 1970s, after all, was not a vintage decade with flares, long hair and tartan scarves, courtesy of the Bay City Rollers, being high-fashion.

It was also a decade of widespread industrial unrest, unions holding the government to ransom and soaring inflation. If this all sounds familiar then there is a very good reason for that.

Not many people would probably wish to be transported back to that era, but it appears that Scotland has been, or at least its railway network has since it was nationalised a mere seven weeks ago.

On April 1, quite an apt day, when ScotRail was brought back under public control, Nicola Sturgeon said doing so was a “historic and momentous occasion”.

She was right, just not in the way she intended.

Ironically, she made the statement while standing next to a train at Glasgow Queen Street station and judging by recent events, it was probably the last one to leave on time.

It’s fair to say that the nationalisation of ScotRail has so far proved to be an unmitigated disaster with hundreds of trains being cancelled every day because of driver shortages The reason being drivers have declined to make themselves available for overtime or Sunday working during a pay dispute.

The Aslef union rejected a 2.2% pay rise and balloted drivers over strike action. ScotRail had been relying on drivers working extra hours, following delays in training new staff during the pandemic.

Currently there are around 130 drivers short on the network so that is a fairly significant gap.

Ministers have known they were nationalising ScotRail for years, so these issues should have been addressed. But instead they are left looking like they have been blind-sided by something of their own making.

One option open to politicians would be to blame the previous management.

However, the current management is exactly the same as the previous regime under Dutch firm Abellio which was stripped of the franchise because of performance issues.

In a breathtaking example of rewarding failure, the previous management team was kept on – despite being so bad they lost the franchise in the first place.

A new ‘emergency’ timetable has been introduced, slashing services by a third, until the requisite number of drivers can be fully trained.

It is not a good idea to have a trainee driver hurtling down the track at full speed – unless she happens to be Sandra Bullock, being tutored down the phone by Keanu Reeves as she speeds through New Cumnock.

As it takes a year to train just one driver, Scotland’s railways could see steam locomotives re-introduced by Christmas at the current rate of going backwards.

In March, there were around 2,400 daily services before this dropped to 2,150 in the first summer timetable announced since nationalisation.

From next week , this will be reduced by a third to 1,456.

So in the seven weeks since it fell under ministers’ control, nearly 1,000 daily services have been axed and the network will close down early every night, which is not a success whichever way you look at it.

It is the end of the night-out and the daily commute and city centres will face a further blow as hundreds of thousands of people simply won’t travel if they can’t get home.

The last train on the flagship Edinburgh to Glasgow route will now leave at 22.15 rather than 23.45, while the last train to Aberdeen is now 18.41 as opposed to 21.40. The last one to Dundee is now 19.10 as opposed to 23.10 and it is even worse on commuter routes.

It is set to remain until next year at least unless new drivers can be trained quicker or ministers cave in and give the drivers a pay rise.

If Transport Scotland was a private company, senior management would have been sacked long ago as the company headed towards bankruptcy.

But no-one has been held to account for CalMac and I think there’s more chance of an evening train than someone taking the flak for this latest debacle on wheels.

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