THE BIG SEAT SQUEEZE
Transport Secretary Michael Matheson; Jackie Baillie MSP and Deputy First Minister John Swinney discussed train services at Holyrood today.
Time to blow the whistle on overcrowded commuter trains
By Bill Heaney
Dumbarton and Lomond MSP, Jackie Baillie, has called on Transport Secretary, Michael Matheson, to deal with over-crowding on ScotRail services from Dumbarton, Balloch and Helensburgh.
She said: “Passengers in this area have suffered consistent problems with train services including regular cancellations, delays and short-formed services.”
ScotRail promised the MSP that as part of the timetable changes, services from these stations would have six carriages instead of three, particularly for peak time travel.
Despite this, passengers have continued to be crammed onto three-carriage trains with many services already full by the time they get to Dumbarton Central.
The Transport Minister told the MSP that delays in the delivery of additional rolling stock are to blame for the big squeeze and that the issue was addressed in the franchise.
However, the MSP has discovered that capacity issues are addressed in the ‘Train Plan’ and are no more than just a target for Abellio ScotRail.
“It is therefore disappointing that the Transport Minister agreed not to take any enforcement action on the company for missing targets, so that they are being let off the hook for failing passengers, he said.
He added during the debate that the ferry company David MacBrayne Limited have been spoken to by the Government about the possibility that they may replace Abellio.
Jackie Baillie added: “Abellio ScotRail have missed their targets consistently for months and instead of being on the side of commuters, the Transport Secretary has simply let them off the hook.
“Train services are dangerously overcrowded with ScotRail only providing three carriages for peak time services on the busiest routes, at the same time as passengers are being asked to pay more for the discomfort and indignity of being crammed in like sardines.
“The level of unreliability on train routes is simply unacceptable. It is time that the Transport Secretary stopped turning a blind eye and ensured that ScotRail is held responsible for the poor service.”
Michael Matheson said: “We are making significant investment in upgrading the rolling stock in the ScotRail franchise, as a result of which 70 new Hitachi trains are being introduced on to the network to provide an overall 23 per cent increase in seating capacity.
“Part of the challenge on some routes has been the late delivery and supply of those trains and, indeed, the refurbished high-speed trains, and that is having an impact on cascading the rest of the rolling stock across the network.
“Once the additional rolling stock is in place, we will be able to maximise the use of the rolling stock to address those areas where I recognise there is congestion and overcrowding on some trains.
“The situation is unacceptable, and it is addressed in the franchise. We need to get the additional rolling stock in place, and that will be taken forward in the months ahead when Hitachi supplies the rest of the trains, which were due to have been provided by now.”
Meanwhile, the option of a public sector bid to run Scotland’s railways must be kept on the table, Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie has said.
Speaking at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Mr Harvie said that the Scottish Government must consider using a break clause in the ScotRail contract to end Abellio’ s deal in operating the franchise.
In November, MSPs voted against a Labour motion calling for a cancellation to the agreement.
Figures published earlier this week indicated that 2,691 ScotRail services were cancelled due to a lack of staff between April 2018 and January 16 this year.
ScotRail said that the late delivery of trains, coupled with a rest day working and overtime ban last year had contributed to a drop in performance levels.
Mr Harvie suggested that devolving control of Network Rail could help to address some of the issues facing rail travel, but urged Deputy First Minister John Swinney to take action.
“There’s clearly a need for wider structural change. Many of us would agree that Network Rail needs to be in the control of Scotland so that we can have a truly joined-up approach to these issues,” said Mr Harvie.
“But we cannot wait for that. That is no excuse for not taking action now.
“Three months ago when many of these failures were already being regularly reported, the Government voted against using the break-point in the ScotRail franchise next year.
“If the Government weren’t convinced then, I think they should be convinced now that that option must remain on the table.”
He added: “Surely the Deputy First Minister won’t rule that option out because doing so would give Abellio a free pass to continue failing.
“The Government must work on the assumption that a public sector bidder may be needed from next year.”
Mr Swinney said that the Scottish Government does not consider the performance of ScotRail to be acceptable and reiterated that a remedial notice had been issued to Abellio on December 24.
The notice requires the operator to state how it will address current issues by submitting a remedial plan by February 18.
Mr Swinney agreed with Mr Harvie’s, pictured left, assertion that Network Rail should be devolved and said that development work to establish a public sector bid was underway.
“If there was to be a situation which arose where an operator of last resort was to replace ScotRail in 2020, that can only be a temporary measure,” Mr Swinney said. Under the current UK legislation, the requirement to tender the franchise would still remain which then opens up the possibility, which we have now secured as a Government, to bring forward a competitive public sector bid in that context.”
He added: “Development work is underway about how to advance the concept of a competitive public sector bid. That work is being taken forward by the Transport Secretary in dialogue with David MacBrayne Ltd who we’ve invited to take forward some of that work.
“The Government believes fundamentally we have got to have an efficient public rail network that meets the needs of individuals within Scotland, that acts in the public interest, that delivers services that members of the public are looking for.
“That’s what our immediate short-term action is focused on achieving and it’s why we’re open to developing a competitive public sector bid within the context of the existing UK legislation within which we have to operate.”
Labour Transport spokesman Colin Smyth told the Holyrood parliament that his party would continue to campaign for public ownership of the railways.
Mr Smyth said: “Labour wants a publicly owned ScotRail but our plans to exercise the break clause in Abellio’s contract were blocked at Holyrood by the SNP and the Tories.
“With passengers facing rip-off fares and substandard service, we’ll continue to make the case for public ownership of our public transport – unlike the SNP, which has handed Abellio a licence to fail.”
Dumbarton and Helensburgh central stations.