It’s come under public scrutiny like no other Scottish transport operator, bar perhaps CalMac, and now that it’s re-joined the ferry operator in public ownership, it’s being used by some opposition politicians as a stick with which to beat the SNP-led Scottish Government.
I have written countless critical stories – and a fair few positive ones – about Scotland’s main train firm. I justify them as being in the public interest, not least because the key player in the country’s transport network receives a huge and rising level of public funding, which approached £1 billion a year during the Covid pandemic.
However, there’s a difference between what I regard as justifiable criticism and ill-informed attacks based on a lack of understanding of the rail industry, which I’ve found to be so complex that I often refer to it as a parallel universe.
Two press releases from the Scottish Liberal Democrats over the last month purported to highlight ScotRail’s failings – by publishing freedom of information figures showing the age of its fleet and the cost of replacement taxis because of cancelled or delayed trains.
On the former, the party questioned whether “reliance on old trains has been allowed to impede on operational efficiency” after discovering ScotRail’s oldest carriages date back to 1976 and those in longest continuous use were built in 1986. What it didn’t say, or perhaps didn’t know, is that the fleet it mentioned, class 318 electric trains which run in and around Glasgow, are actually among ScotRail’s most reliable.
When I checked, rail expert Roger Ford, who assesses train reliability annually for Modern Railways magazine, told me they are two-and-a-half times as reliable as the best of ScotRail’s diesel trains, and one of the most reliable British Rail-built trains still in service. Meanwhile, railway historian and television presenter Tim Dunn told me he found the Scottish Liberal Democrats’ analysis “odd” – he said age was often irrelevant, especially to passengers, and may even suggest quality.
He added that with the climate emergency, quality train refurbishments, which all ScotRail’s older trains have undergone to the extent that most passengers wouldn’t recognise them as old, should be valued more highly.
Official industry figures also showed that although ScotRail’s fleet is the sixth oldest in Britain, it has the fourth lowest cancellation rate and seventh best punctuality. Merseyrail, which has Britain’s oldest fleet, averaging nearly 43 years old, has even better punctuality.
In their latter release, the Scottish Liberal Democrats said “newly nationalised” ScotRail had spent an “astonishing” £130,000 in six months on replacement taxis. However, the party told me it didn’t know what proportion of the train delays and cancellations involved had been caused by ScotRail.
The train operator told me train faults were “pretty low down the list” among causes, and they were more likely to have been due to track and signalling faults, or other factors such as the weather, which are the responsibility of Network Rail.
By all means criticise when it’s due, but let’s not be in danger of misleading passengers – and taxpayers – by using ScotRail, or indeed any other transport operator as a political football.