Rail operator left reeling by demand for ‘quick’ improvements

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With two railway stations, one serving Scotland’s busiest line, Falkirk could be argued to be the perfect place in which to decide if Scotrail is getting it right.

However a welter of problems have skewed normal equations. Bad news headlines proliferate, and now the beleaguered rail operator has been handed another remedial plan notice.

It follows months of problems, for example the late delivery of new trains because of an organisational gaffe, and delays on some scheduled services because train staff had been withdrawn to undergo training for the new, better service.

Press releases from Scotrail tell us of advances in customer satisfaction ratings, but these achievments are not enough.

Most recently a train breaking down at Haymarket caused problems for fans heading to the Scotland-Irish clash at Murrayfield - and while in another year that might have been “just one of those things” it no longer washes with passengers.

Social media messages from aggrieved rugby fans captured the disillusionment with the whole system.

But is the oppobrium being heaped on Scotrail really justified?

Jane Ann Liston is Scottish spokeswoman for the organisation Railfuture, an independent body campaigning for better railways, and while she has no doubt improvements are needed she thinks some politicians - perhaps even some of those presently excoriating Scotrail - need to revisit the recent past.

“The fact is many talk a good game about the railways, but ask yourself what politicians have really done to move things forward in Scotland in recent years - as opposed to the millions spent on roads, which always seem to come first.”

She adds: “Investment in railways was poor under all political parties for many years, and the result is a weak infrastructure - and a lot of the problems (eg with breakdowns) are not caused by Scotrail”.

At the same time there are sustained attempts to take the whole system to a new level (following on from electrification), but on a system some see as a rickety remnant of a past in which rail - once the pride of Britain - is second rate.

She concedes that shifting the negative perceptions will be an uphill struggle, while for Scotrail - continually forced to answer the headline point of the minute - sustaining a long term strategy is a massive challenge.

But her main point, as someeone who has campaigned vigorously for years on railway issues, is that politicians need to stop pretending, as she sees it, that they have always been champions of efficient, modern rail travel.

Meanwhile Falkirk West MSP Michael Matheson, as Scottish Government transport secretary, has the brief for dispensing brickbats when ScotRail is (from a statistical point of view) seen to be getting it wrong.

He says the latest poor figures on satisfaction are “unsurprising”, commenting: “Too often passengers have been left disappointed, and this must change swiftly”.

He then goes on to say he wants “quick action” to ensure record amounts being spent on the system “quite rightly translate to better satisfaction levels and a more attractive service”.

Setting to one side the question of whether a national railway operator can produce transformational results “quickly”, while pursuing a complex development strategy, Scotrail will also have to produce a Remedial Plan.

ScotRail now has under twelve weeks to submit a recipe for success, in addition to the existing remedial plan for performance and cancellations which is due for return by February 18.

Meanwhile passengers fume - and wait - for progress.