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Scotland’s Railway – The Year Ahead

Published 15 July 2021 by Transform Scotland

Transform’s rail spokesperson Paul Tetlaw has prepared a new commentary on what developments we might see on Scotland’s railways over the coming year.


Government Transport Policies

The future development of the railway in Scotland will be shaped by government policies not only for the railway itself but across all transport modes. If we are to achieve a significant modal shift to a more sustainable transport system then government policies and spending priorities must be targeted to ensure that is the direction of travel. For it is undeniably the case that mass behaviour in transport use is fashioned by governments.

The need for change could not be clearer – be it tackling climate change, reducing congestion, improving local air quality or creating more active lifestyles. All demand a shift to a more sustainable transport system and the railway should be the backbone of a public transport network that connects all parts of Scotland.

Developing the Railway

Looking to the years ahead we need to consider a number of aspects that will shape the railway of the future in Scotland. It will be important to deliver on the decarbonisation commitments, introduce new and improved rolling stock, grow and develop the railway, reform ticketing and integrate the railway with the wider public transport network. These measures will ensure that the railway is fit and ready for the significant modal shift to rail that will be required.

Structural Changes

Before looking in more detail at individual improvements it is important to also consider the possible impact of the Williams-Shapps Great British Railways White Paper on Scotland and the future structure of Scotland’s railway. The Scottish Government has committed to run the railway directly from March 2022 and from then the current franchise operated by Abellio will be terminated. It does not appear that the White Paper will lead to the additional powers that the Scottish Government sought and so an ‘Operator of Last Resort’ is likely to run the railway on an interim basis. There are similarities to the situation with the LNER and Northern operations and the arrangement put in place in Wales but exactly what long term structure emerges for Scotland is currently unclear. We should however expect a smooth transition to this interim arrangement. The overall impact on Scotland of the new White Paper is unclear as while it states that devolved authorities in Scotland and Wales have a range of powers they will continue to exercise there are also many references to Great British Railways central control over branding, ticketing and timetable setting and it is stated that there will be one web-site and app. How the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland will respond is as yet uncertain but any uncertainty must not be allowed to impact on the decarbonisation and modernisation programmes currently set out.

Rolling Stock Modernisation and Decarbonisation

In term of rolling stock all diesel trains are planned to be replaced by 2035 with individual fleets having different replacement dates:

  • Inter-city 125 trains should be replaced by Battery Electric Multiple Units (BEMUs) by 2030.
  • Class 156 units will be life-expired by 2025 and are likely to be replaced by cascaded 170s and 158s.
  • Class 158s will themselves be life-expired in 2030.
  • Class 170s will be life-expired in 2035 and so are likely to be the longest surviving diesel trains.

In addition to replacement of the diesel fleet, Class 318/320 electric units are to be replaced by 2025/2030. All of the above fleet replacements mean that new trains must be procured and this needs to be planned to blend seamlessly with the infrastructure decarbonisation programme. While it is widely accepted that full electrification is the most efficient and cost-effective solution for most routes, hydrogen and battery trains are being studied for more rural routes and BEMUs are likely to be deployed on some routes as an interim measure towards full electrification.

However, when taking decisions on new trains and electrification it is important to bear in mind the operating cost of different train types. Recent figures given by ScotRail managing director Alex Hynes at an online event show the operating cost per vehicle mile as:

  • New Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) £1.32
  • New BEMU – £1.62
  • New hydrogen train – £2.62

In addition, EMUs are more reliable, quicker and more likely to attract modal shift from the car. So there is a clear message here.

Electrification programme

Class 385 trains by ScotRail Alliance (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Decarbonisation of the railway by 2035 will require a large scale electrification programme as well as forms of alternative traction. Currently, in Control Period 6 (CP6) – to 2024 – the lines to East Kilbride and Barrhead are being electrified, the reopened line to Levenmouth is also to be electrified as well as the main line from Haymarket to Dalmeny. This will allow BEMUs to run to Levenmouth as an interim measure and it is also planned to partially electrify the Borders railway to allow BEMUs to run from Edinburgh to Tweedbank.

Future phases of electrification are to be developed during CP6 to coincide with the life-expiry of the current diesel fleet by 2035. This is said to include the Highland Main Line, Aberdeen to the Central Belt, Aberdeen to Inverness, Fife lines to Perth and Dundee, the Fife Circle, Dunfermline to Longannet and Alloa, the Glasgow and South Western Route to Carlisle and from Ayr to Girvan. This is an extensive programme and it will be important to make an early start and create a rolling programme that will allow skills and expertise to be developed and retained. This will ensure efficient delivery and greater experience will no doubt bring a lowering of unit costs.

The more rural routes to Kyle of Lochalsh, the Far North, the West Highlands and Stranraer are the ones proposed for alternative traction. Whilst this will achieve decarbonisation, it will not produce the same benefits as electrification and there may well be a case for reviewing this plan. Scotland benefits from significant quantities of electricity generated from hydro and other renewables and we should perhaps look to Switzerland where electrification of the rail network was achieved long ago.

New Routes and Stations

The next route to reopen will be the line to Levenmouth which will also feature a station at Cameron Bridge. It is welcome news that the route will be double tracked and electrified and provision for freight should also be included from the outset. Other stations scheduled to open in CP6 are at Dalcross, East Linton and Reston. The latter two are on the East Coast Main Line (ECML) where there are serious capacity constraints and there is a current industry consultation on the timetable to be run from 2022. This implies that the new station at Reston will be served by just four trains per day with no current information on services to be provided at East Linton. This is a wholly unacceptable situation and highlights the urgent need for infrastructure upgrades on this route to allow for local as well as long distance services and to improve journey times on this key Anglo-Scottish artery.

Other stations may open on the current freight only route from Alloa to Dunfermline and studies are underway into re-opening and electrification of this route for passenger services. This is linked to the development of train manufacturing facilities at Longannet but that apart this would be a very worthwhile addition to the passenger network in Central Scotland. A new station is also ‘in development’ for Winchburgh – an area with large scale housing development where the delivery of a new station is much delayed – the result of scaling back earlier enhancements.

Infrastructure Upgrades

The Transport Scotland website lists a large number of projects ‘in development’ in addition to those detailed above. To achieve the modal shift to public transport that is so clearly required it is clear that infrastructure upgrades are required to provide more capacity on the network. In addition to the ECML south of the Central Belt the Highland Main Line to Inverness stands out as a route in desperate need of more capacity for passenger and freight services. This has been long promised but instead we have seen a shift of expenditure to the parallel A9 road. Unless equal investment is made in the railway the Scottish government will not achieve its stated objectives of modal shift and ‘making the train quicker than the car’ between Scotland’s cities.

Ticketing, Marketing and Modal Integration

The final areas for consideration in the look ahead for Scotland’s railway are ticketing and integration between modes. The choice of tickets needs to be easy to understand and seen as fair across Scotland for similar journeys on similar routes. Any remaining areas where split tickets are cheaper than through tickets should be eradicated and the practice of demand management through charging excess prices should be a thing of the past. No such practice exists on the road network where the car is the main competition with the train. It is widely acknowledged that one of the growth areas on the railway in the future will be leisure travel and tickets should be targeted to increase this market. Family and group tickets, rovers and tickets for circular journeys (out by one route return by another) should all be part of the marketing mix as well as inclusive tickets with other attractions. There is ample evidence throughout railway history of focussed marketing campaigns attracting new passengers – we would be wise to learn from that history.

Ticketing alone will not see Scotland compete with other countries and integration with other modes should be introduced to offer complete public transport journeys where a through ticket and easy and convenient interchange between modes becomes the norm.

So we now look to Government and its agencies to deliver the necessary policies and spending priorities to develop and embed a truly sustainable transport system that not only addresses the challenges outlined but is seen as attractive and easy to use – and for the majority of the population becomes the transport of choice.