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Scotland’s Railway in 2022

Published 22 February 2022 by Transform Scotland

The year ahead promises many changes and challenges for the railway in Scotland and Anglo-Scottish rail links. This commentary focuses on both the ScotRail network and the crucial Anglo-Scottish links.   

Government Transport  Policies

As ever the future success of the railway is dependent on a wider range of Government transport policies – both the Scottish and UK Government’s. Given the many challenges posed by climate change, poor local air quality, wider public health concerns from factors such as obesity and traffic congestion it seems clear that the future focus should be on funding and prioritising sustainable transport modes.  The recent publication of STPR2 appears to offer a welcome change of emphasis in Scottish Government thinking on transport priorities but will be seen as a disappointment to many who are campaigning for expansion of the rail network.    

New Structure for ScotRail

Major changes lie ahead, as from 1 April 2022 the Abellio regime comes to an end and ScotRail service will then be operated by a new public body. At the start of the franchise we were pleased to see that many of our recommendations had been taken on board in setting out the franchise requirements but it is now clear that the franchise has failed to deliver on many of these aspirations. A combination of factors such as delays to new train delivery, industrial relations problems and the pandemic have all hindered progress. So it is now time to push the reset button.

A new structure will see seasoned railway professional Chris Gibb take on the role of Chief Operating Officer of Scottish Rail Holdings, the public body that will own and oversee ScotRail Trains from 1 April 2022. He will also chair the board of ScotRail Trains. Also appointed to Scottish Rail Holdings as Finance Director is David Lowrie. It is anticipated that further appointments will be made to this public body but no announcements have yet been made.

Separately, Joanne Maguire has been appointed as ScotRail Trains’ Chief Operating Officer taking up post from 1 April 2022. Her background lies in the education, manufacturing and retail sectors. Eyebrows have been raised at her apparent lack of experience in the railway industry but given the industrial relations problems experienced by ScotRail it seems clear that her experience in HR will be key as ScotRail faces up to the challenges ahead.

Turning now to those challenges, top of the list must be the impact of the pandemic on railway patronage which has seen passenger numbers severely depleted following government messaging to avoid public transport and to work from home. This has resulted in a significant loss of the commuter traffic which had previously contributed to ever-rising passenger numbers over the last twenty years. The prolonged period of home working may well have created an end to traditional five-day working from the office. However, it seems clear that for organisations to continue to innovate, prosper and provide a professional service then people need to come together to create the right environment to allow ideas to flourish and services to be delivered.

While commuter travel has been badly affected there has been a very encouraging recovery in leisure travel which helps to show the undeniable attractiveness and convenience of rail travel. ScotRail recently launched a consultation on future timetables and services to which we responded. What was clear from this was that on average only around 25% of seats were occupied on ScotRail trains before the pandemic – which incidentally is around the average car occupancy rate. In terms of the railway in Scotland that statistic shows a huge potential to promote and market rail services. Scotland’s railway with its numerous scenic routes and connections into and between cities offers a tremendous opportunity to help market and better connect Scotland for visitors and locals alike. New thinking is required at all levels within Government and the railway.

The railway must be seen as the backbone of the public transport network and a key part of the solution to the transport challenges we face. For those running the railway a new approach is required to tap into the many and varied markets and changing travel habits of the public. Fleet of foot response to these changes will be needed and an active and on-going marketing strategy which seeks to work with others to promote rail as the obvious choice for travel to all areas where the railway penetrates.  To quote just two examples the new Scottish Tapestry Centre in Galashiels is easily accessed by rail from Edinburgh – a joint promotion would benefit both the Borders Railway and the Tapestry Centre. Equally the many attractions in our cities offer excellent potential for joint promotions to ensure that the journey to the city is by rail.                   

We can always learn from history and the first half of the 20th century has numerous examples of the way railways sought to promote rail travel by offering rail tickets combined with entry to visitor attractions, numerous outlets for ticket sales, rover and round-robin tickets and indeed whole holidays by rail. In the 21st century that is just what many of the rail charter operators now offer and Scotland is a frequent destination of choice.  There is surely a message here.

New Routes and Stations

As described in my July 2021 commentary, the Levenmouth Line will reopen in the current control period – scheduled for 2024. Preparatory work is already underway and new stations will be built at Cameron Bridge and Levenmouth. The line will be double track and was scheduled to be electrified, however it is now being reported that ‘there will be provision to electrify the line in future’.  The initial service will be provided by diesel trains as opposed to the bi-mode trains originally planned as electrification work from Edinburgh to the Forth Bridge has also yet to commence and there is no news of the necessary new trains being ordered. Just what this means for the ambitious decarbonisation plans remains to be seen.

Three other new stations are likely to open in the current control period before those on the Levenmouth Line – namely Reston, East Linton and Dalcross (for Inverness airport). Reston is almost complete and should open in the spring; in each direction it appears that it will be served by five Transpennine Express trains providing a local service between Edinburgh and Newcastle, one LNER and two Cross Country services. Whilst this may be adequate for Reston in the short-term, it is clearly not sufficient for the other East Coast Main Line station at East Linton. When this opens in 2024 it needs to receive an hourly service to ensure its success – this is most easily achieved by enhancement of the current Edinburgh-Dunbar trains. 

No other new stations are scheduled to open in this control period.

Great British Railways

This report branded as the Williams-Shapps Plan for Rail was launched with great fanfare by the UK Government in May 2021. There is much to welcome in here with proposals for much greater integration of the different parts of the railway and simplification of the archaic and complex ticketing system. However, exactly when parliamentary time will be allocated at Westminster for the necessary legislative changes and what impact this might have on Scotland remains unclear.

HS2, the Integrated Rail Plan and the Union Connectivity Review

There have been a number of recent announcements from the UK Government which mostly centre on the railways in England but have significant consequences for Scotland and Anglo-Scottish rail routes.  The Integrated Rail Plan resulted in a downgrading of the planned HS2 network and the scrapping of the eastern leg of HS2 to Leeds. Naturally this has caused great angst in Leeds and the north east of the country and plans to instead upgrade classic routes such as the East Coast Main Line (ECML) are fraught with problems and are unlikely to create the extra capacity for local services and for freight that was a key element of HS2.

For Scotland this means that planned HS2 services to Edinburgh now seem unlikely via the ECML. Scotland will be served by HS2 trains on the West Coast Main Line (WCML) as the new trains to be ordered will be ‘classic compatible’ so will be able to leave the high speed lines and run on to destinations on the existing (classic) lines. Services are initially planned to Glasgow with a degree of uncertainty about how Edinburgh might be served from the WCML. Journey times to London will see only modest improvements.

Separately the Union Connectivity Review has recommended upgrades to both the ECML and WCML to maintain competitive rail journey times from Scotland to England. These are crucial to reduce rail journey times and create extra capacity for more services. The lack of capacity on the ECML was dramatically highlighted by a recent consultation exercise on improving LNER journey times to London and we responded to this consultation. It became clear that this can only be achieved by removing other services from the route and by existing stations such as Berwick-upon-Tweed having a reduced frequency of stops. Added to that, there remains uncertainty about how to serve new stations such as Reston and East Linton.   

Work had been ongoing by Transport Scotland to develop plans to upgrade both the ECML and WCML for extra capacity and to improve journey times. I have been a member of Transport Scotland’s High Speed Rail Partnership Group for many years and was party to the plans being developed which clearly need co-operation by those on both sides of the border. However we now know that the development work ceased around two and a half years ago. 

Why does all of this matter? Well before the pandemic there were over a hundred daily flights from Central Scotland to London with the modal share between air and rail being 70% air 30% rail. Added to that, there is no current capacity for extra local services and freight. So where does this sorry saga leave ambitions for decarbonisation and modal shift from road and air to rail? A recent report featured in the Independent newspaper on 19th January showed that cutting rail journey times from Edinburgh and Glasgow to London to 3 hours would enable rail’s modal share to grow to 75%. France and Germany have developed clear strategies to convert domestic air journeys to rail journeys. Now is surely the time for clear and coherent action plans from the UK and Scottish Governments.