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24.11.16

Transport minister:  ScotRail has learned lessons after recent chaos

Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf sought to reassure MSPs that “ScotRail has learned lessons” after receiving severe criticism for problems on Scotland’s railways.

In an emergency statement at Holyrood yesterday, Yousaf apologised to rail passengers affected by a recent history of disruption after overheard wiring problems severely affected services in Glasgow earlier in the day.

Yousaf admitted that while ScotRail’s performance was not “up to scratch”, it was higher than the UK average. He also outlined a number of actions the government had agreed with ScotRail including an earlier commuter service between Inverness and Scotland’s central belt and more carriages for peak services to reduce overcrowding.

He told the Scottish Parliament: “Everyone rightly expects a railway network that operates effectively. So when things go wrong I fully understand the dissatisfaction of passengers and the inconvenience that is caused.

“Although there are no guarantees major failures won't happen, I give my reassurance that ScotRail has learned lessons and is far better prepared for contingencies, including communication with passengers, when such incidents do take place.”

Yousaf highlighted several current commitments made by the Scottish government to improve the railway which included a £5bn five-year programme to “transform the railway”; £475m for new trains, and the acceleration of £16m over two years to upgrade key infrastructure.

The reliability of ScotRail trains has been under intense scrutiny since Abellio took over the franchise, with this the latest in a series of incidents affecting the beleaguered rail service. Yousaf was under pressure last week after a train breakdown near Edinburgh led to widespread cancellations across the central belt, leading first minister Nicola Sturgeon to apologise during FMQs.

ScotRail was ordered to produce a performance improvement plan in September after the service did not meet punctuality and reliability targets. Abellio said that the operator was working in collaboration with Yousaf and Transport Scotland in order to ensure improvement.

“Scotland's railways are undergoing an unprecedented period of investment and modernisation, addressing a legacy of underinvestment and ensuring that we have a railway of which Scotland can be proud,” said Charlotte Twyning, director of policy, strategy and communications for Abellio UK.

“It is inevitable that managing an increasingly busy rail service while this important work is being undertaken will lead to some disruption, and it is our job to better engage with passengers to explain what is happening and listen to their frustrations. We appreciate their patience as this work is undertaken.”

Between 16 October and 12 November 86% of ScotRail trains were on time or less than five minutes late. Although there were wide variations in reliability across Scotland, the operator’s performance was still better than average for all UK train operators along with its customer satisfaction.

However, Abellio’s contract to run ScotRail requires a 91.3% punctuality rate with the government permitted to cancel the contract if performance dips below 84.3% for three months in a row.

Scottish Labour’s transport spokesperson Neil Bibby said that ScotRail had become worse since the improvement plan was demanded and urged Yousaf to make the full document public.

Bibby said: “Yousaf’s handling of the rail crisis has seen him fall out with Abellio, Network Rail and the transport unions. He claims he's not a transport expert - and he's right. He must ditch the spin and publish his 246 point improvement plan in full.”

In a response letter to Bibby, Abellio commented that it is currently delivering a £475m investment programme, compared to an investment of only £110m from October 2004 to March 2015. 

“It is unrealistic to expect the scale of infrastructure investment and modernisation to be undertaken (the largest of its kind since Victorian times) with little or no disruption to the travelling public,” wrote Mike Connelly, communications and public affairs director for Abellio in Scotland.

“It is our job to ensure that the travelling public understand what this transformation programme looks like and to better explain what the implications are for them, particularly when things go wrong. We will make every effort to improve the way we do that in the coming weeks and months.”

The Scottish government previously announced that it intends to use the additional rail powers provided to it through the Scotland Act 2016 which allows public-sector bodies to bid for future Scottish rail franchises. Abellio indicated that it would “gladly” compete with a public sector bidder for the franchise in the future.

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