Ahh ScotRail. Scotland’s national train operator. Previously, I felt like it was unfairly maligned. It can’t be easy running a rail network after all. I like the train. It’s far more civilised than getting the bus with all of the ruffians. I’m middle class don’t you know. However, over the past few years, ScotRail’s services have been woefully, terribly bad. This has especially been the case for those of us ‘fortunate’ enough to live in what is apparently ‘one of the best places to live in Scotland‘, as the frequency of our train services has been reduced to just one an hour.
Now I could go on about all of the reasons that this is particularly galling, such as the sheer hypocrisy of hosting COP26 in Glasgow while local train services had been reduced to a smouldering heap – or the fact that towns outside of the city enjoy much more frequent services to the centre than us – but I won’t. Instead, I’ll give you a brief history of the situation, and then get on to the real meaty part of this blog: the Freedom of Information Act Request
COVID + Nationalisation
Yes, the C word. When we realised that apparently the COVID thing was actually a problem we would have to contend with seriously, ScotRail cut services drastically. This made sense. People couldn’t travel unless it was for essential purposes, so there was absolutely no need to continue as before. No problem.
However. When restrictions eased, and people were moving around as before (going to restaurants, pubs, and even clubs of all things), ScotRail didn’t seem to be in a hurry to help those folks get to where they needed to be (one would have thought more frequent services would have resulted in less crowding and so more possibility to socially distance, but still) – staggering the timetable revisions for months after each round of change. Most importantly for my purposes though – the provision of trains through my local stations never recovered.
Now we come onto the N word. Nationalisation. For in all of this we also have to understand that the rail service was being brought into public ownership as of the 1st of April 2022 – and no – that isn’t a joke (or at least, it wasn’t intended to be). One might suggest that perhaps the previous operator was more interested in squeezing all they could out of the network by using the pandemic as cover to reduce services prior to this taking place, but I am sure that wasn’t the case.
Back in August of 2021 I emailed my SNP MSP James Dornan to raise my concerns that any service restrictions that took place prior to nationalisation under the guise of being a direct result of the pandemic would carry over to the new ownership, and never be restored. I didn’t receive any response to that. Reassuring.
Fast forward to the 15th of July 2022, and ScotRail announce that timetables were returning to ‘normal’, after they had been further cut due to a union dispute. Huzzah! I thought. Finally, the Cathcart Circle will return to its former glory. Alas, it wasn’t to be the case.
Ah yes. What a shock. I pressed them on this, only to receive a rather condescending reply:
They didn’t reply to my query about the Freedom of Information Act request (naughty naughty), but since they are now nationalised, then they have an obligation to respond to them, so I hunted down the information (available here for those who want to do similar), and submitted a request.
Freedom of Information Act Request + Response
Just after midnight on the 20th of July, I submitted my FOIA request. This was the contents:
I am submitting a request for information relating to the provision of service to Pollokshaws East Train Station.
Specifically I am seeking information on:
* The reasoning for the reduction of service to/from Pollokshaws East in 2020.
* The reasoning and for any subsequent decisions or discussions relating to service provision to Pollokshaws East, namely why the service has not been reinstated since that time.
* Information on timetable reviews relating to Pollokshaws East over the past two years, including any conclusions drawn on the basis of balancing ‘demand’ and ‘value for the taxpayer’.
* Any data supporting those determinations.
This request is based on the following confirmation from ScotRail that there are no plans to reinstate this service – https://twitter.com/ScotRail/status/1549527532701159426
I received a response on Wednesday the 10th of August. The full thing is available here as a PDF for those of you want to get all of the specifics, but I’m going to call out a few note-worthy pieces below.
The reasoning for the decision
The two main reasons for not restoring what ScotRail call the ‘South Electrics’ routes are listed as follows: Firstly, COVID meant that ScotRail were unable to train new drivers.
Secondly, well. Err, see if you can work out what this means.
If you grope around in amongst the cryptic language of ‘pre-pandemic transport mode share’, and travel further down the FOIA response, it seems like what they are really saying is that the routes are too expensive. Specifically, that the operating costs are circa £26 million, whereas revenue from those routes is only circa £10 million.
Now I’m no mathematician, but there’s a few weird numbers in there. For example, I’m not sure that the difference between 13.4 passengers and 16.2 passengers is big enough to justify cutting provision to a community in half. Although apparently that’s how ScotRail treat passengers in terms of raw numbers. I wish I knew what constituted the 0.2 passenger. I guess I have seen some folks on the line at night that weren’t all there, but still.
Secondly, it is a bit cheeky of ScotRail to say that each journey only brings in an average of £1.31 per journey, without giving any kind of recognition that many people will buy a return ticket at £2.60 for a single journey, because it is cheaper to do that than buy two singles. I am sure that isn’t relevant to these calculations. Not at all.
Public Transport is so good that we don’t need trains
Okay, so maybe they have a point. Maybe the service is too expensive to run. Maybe the people just don’t want to use the train. Maybe, just maybe, COVID actually did pose logistical challenges outside of asset stripping from previous operators, and that less utilised routes needed to be paused until they could be addressed. Hey, that all makes perfect sense. The reason I submitted the FOIA request was to get a better understanding of the rationale and logic behind the decision, rather than clap along jubilantly with the press releases suggesting that we are back to business as normal, when I still can’t get a bloody train into town more than once an hour.
The weirdest justification for the decision to leave those of us on the ‘South Electrics’ routes bereft of an adequate service though came in the next paragraph. It is so absurd that I’ve had to highlight it.
That’s right. Apparently the reason that public transport services in the South Side of Glasgow were not restored to their pre-pandemic levels was because the public transport services are just so damn good. People don’t need to get the train; they can get the bus instead! And what’s more, about 30-40% of them won’t even pay for the bus! Interestingly enough, there was no breakdown of the age of the users of the services on ScotRail versus the bus, but I am sure that’s not relevant.
ScotRail can’t spell the names of their own stations
By far the funniest part of this whole thing though is that ScotRail consistently spelled the names of Pollokshaws and Pollokshields incorrectly. I get it. We’ve all been confused about whether or not there’s a ‘c’ in there before, but come onnnnn. In response to a FOIA request, specifically about those stations… that you operate? Yeesh.
Dear oh dear.
Look, I know that COVID has thrown up a huge number of challenges for all parts of society (as well as Brexit, but apparently that never gets mentioned). I am keenly aware of the problems that organisations face as a result. However, at a time where we are being told that improving public services is essential to reduce the number of car journeys being taken so that we can save the planet (this isn’t me as some kind of green activist speaking btw – it’s the rhetoric that we were faced with from the Scottish Government during the obscene spectacle of COP26) – then we have to actually improve those services – and the decisions around provision have to be as open and transparent as possible.
In their response to the Freedom of Information Act Request, ScotRail frequently mention their public consultations. However, they specifically note that they received only 393 responses from passengers.
The irony here is that not only did they not propose making any real changes to the provision, but also that of the 393 responses, 83% of them brought up the frequency of the trains – presumably not in a complimentary fashion. Thus lieth one of the main reasons that so few people actually respond to these things. Firstly, they are buried deep in corporate websites, laden with pages of text and overly grand, visionary language (‘Fit for the Future’? Are they having an actual laugh? A more accurate title would be: ‘Stemming the tide of shit’) – and secondly – it doesn’t appear that ScotRail will change their planned course of action, irrespective of what people say in response to a consultation.
Retaining a reduced timetable in major parts of the city for an elongated period based on ‘uncertainty over how demand will recover’ is really derisory.
Unfortunately, this was entirely predictable. The pandemic was used as cover for essential services to be reduced, and justifications made for that to be permanent after the fact. It’s pathetic.
I’ve asked ScotRail a few follow up questions:
- When the timetable review is actually planned for. They told me December on Twitter. The FOIA response is much more vague.
- What on earth ‘most mature rail market’ and ‘our pre-pandemic transport mode share was greater than in other reasons’ means.
- What the ‘historical demand’ they speak about used to make the decision was.
- Finally, whether they realise the stations are not spelled PolloCkshields and PolloCkshaws.
I am not holding my breath for their response, but if they do reply, I’ll share anything interesting here. In the meantime, I’ve bought a bike.