Iain Macwhirter: Scotland’s newly nationalized rail service is already in a death spiral


How will a worker, on average paid, feel unable to get to or from work due to a strike by train drivers who earn £52,000 a year base (about double the salary annual Scottish median)?

That was the question posed by BBC Scotland presenters last week as a summer of rail chaos looms. Well, the answer, oddly enough, is that most of them won’t notice. Why? Because they are already going to work by car.

Some figures: According to Transport Scotland, 65% of all journeys in Scotland are by car and only 2% by train. To get to work, 68% of workers go by car compared to 5% by train. And these are pre-Covid numbers from 2019.

Rail use plummeted further during the pandemic because people rightly felt they were more at risk in a crowded train car than in a vehicle with their own families. But those who are now returning to rail find that there is no more because of service cuts.

Under the new ‘temporary’ timetable, caused by the overtime ban, a traveler from Glasgow will not be able to return home after 10pm from Edinburgh, 7pm from Dundee, 6pm from Aberdeen, and services premises will be uneven from 8 p.m. It’s a disaster for hospitality, sporting events, Edinburgh’s festivals and music venues.

The blame game

AS Nicola Sturgeon is beginning to realise, the fact that ScotRail is publicly owned means that anything that goes wrong, from leaves on the line to a lack of train drivers, becomes the fault of the government. The unions rejected a 2.2% offer and will seek 11% this summer to match inflation.

The PM can’t just order unions and ScotRail bosses to fix the problem – or rather she can, but no one will let her off the hook now that it’s in the hands of the state. Railway unions now have greater influence because they know the traveling public will blame the government, not a foreign company, for the delays.

If Ms Sturgeon gives in to the railway unions, she will find that all public sector workers – teachers, councilors etc.

– will want 11% too. This will weigh heavily on public finances. But the railway crisis is much more than a social conflict.

When I hear Scottish politicians talk about rail, I often wonder if they realize how few people use it. The service is caught in a vice between falling passenger revenues and rising costs.

As anyone with a family knows, train travel is prohibitively expensive. Yet huge sums of public money are already spent on it.

Before Covid, Transport Scotland’s budget bill for rail alone was £989m for 2019 and £1,264m in 2020. This excluded additional Covid emergency grants. Half goes as a direct grant to ScotRail, the rest goes to Network Rail funding for track, renewal and maintenance.

You might wonder why the Scottish taxpayer spends such a colossal sum on a service that is only used for 2% of journeys?

Engine of change

THE usual answer is that the Scottish Government is determined to get people out of their cars for environmental reasons, but clearly few people do.

There are three million vehicles on Scottish roads, the vast majority of them passenger cars. It is a very large political constituency, but one that has remained largely silent in recent years.

The 68% who use their car to get to work often have little alternative because rail service is uneven and expensive. Car-dependent workers, many of whom work in care professions, are being beaten head-on by record high petrol and diesel prices at the pumps, the majority of the cost of which goes to the government in the form of taxes.

They also face a workplace parking fee. They need viable alternatives. A transport system that goes where they want to go, in comfort and at a competitive price.

However, the Greens, who wield huge influence over Scottish government policy, want cars banned.

For them, public transport is a moral issue: it is a question of showing that motorists are bad people who do not care about the environment and that the roads should be taxed. It is a punitive approach to transport policy. It also fails miserably and causes deep resentment.

A lot of people, myself included, like to take the train, not just to save the planet. You don’t get stuck in traffic and can do a little work or read a book, but I’m privileged and can afford the fares. Anyone driving Scotland’s busiest road between Glasgow and Edinburgh at rush hour will laugh.

The way to get more people to use the railways is to give them an incentive by making them cheaper. At present, five adults can travel by car to and from Edinburgh for less than a single person’s off-peak ticket.

For ScotRail’s one-time anytime return price of £27.60, announced in January (fares are reduced this month as a nationalization rate), they could probably travel in Rolls-Royce and still have some cash.

The private car is not going away. SUVs are rightly following the path of the dodo, but we are entering a new era of eco-friendly private transportation.

Electric cars are even cheaper to run than gasoline and diesel, and the marginal cost of driving 100 miles is negligible if you charge your vehicle at home.

There is a new generation of midsize vehicles, e-bikes and self-driving taxis.

Travel fare

THE only way to get people out of their cars is to make train travel competitive. One solution would be to apply a land equivalent of the equivalent road tariff (RET). Many Scottish ferry services set their prices so that it does not cost more to travel the equivalent distance by road.

Transport Scotland obtains a rate per kilometer calculated by the RAC and applies it to Mull or the Hebrides. While this can be done for ferries, it does not seem obvious that RET cannot be applied to trains.

But as civil servants like to say – such a policy would be “brave minister”. Such a road-equivalent system would require vast public subsidies, perhaps doubling the £1 billion a year the railways already consume – at least initially. But in the longer term, if people started using the train for 65% of journeys instead of 2%, then ticket revenue would increase accordingly.

Anyway, time is running out for the railways. Let’s face it: train travel is stiff, uncomfortable and slow. It is essentially a 19th century mode of transport that has never, in this country at least, been brought up to date.

We have a clumsy service that is overpriced and vulnerable to producer capture.

A series of damaging strikes, and ensuing service cuts and rate increases, will make it even less attractive, in government hands, than it was in the bad old days of FirstGroup and Abellio. .

I’m afraid NatRail is in a death spiral, and Nicola Sturgeon will have to work miracles to make it the age of the train.


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