THE subject of the railway in Scotland is one over which the independence movement is all over the place with at the moment, often confusing legitimate criticism with politically motivated criticism.

Having had an utterly abysmal November and December to end 2018, this new year sees, as it always does, annual fare rises being introduced, and it’s taken a prominent position in print, radio and television news.

SNP Transport Secretary Michael Matheson described the rise as unwelcome, and while the fare rises are part and parcel of rail franchising across the UK, he should at least be highlighting the fact that capping those rises to a level below England and Wales is as much as can be done to limit the effects of those rises within the current set-up, and that nationalisation is the Scottish Government’s preferred option.

When Labour were demanding the franchise be removed from Abellio due to delays, many independence campaigners were at great pains to point out that much of the delay on the rail network was the responsibility of the UK Government-run Network Rail. Now that fares are in the spotlight, we see independence campaigners twisting themselves in knots over a fraction of a percent. Most bizarrely of all, some are now parroting UK Transport Secretary Chris Grayling and blaming the trade unions on fare rises! But annual fare rises are built in to the franchises, irrespective of whether wages rise or not.

Unfortunately, Chris Grayling's propaganda has fallen on receptive ears who see the Scottish trade union movement as being in the pocket of Scottish Labour or of being Richard Leonard’s useful idiots. This is every bit of a contortion as Leonard will no doubt attempt if Network Rail staff take industrial action over their upcoming pay negotiations, where he will simultaneously have to back the staff while calling for nationalisation of the rail network and blaming both the Tories and the SNP for the mess.

There have been significant efforts by Labour MSPs to foment dissatisfaction in the rail system in Scotland, with a stream of attacks on social media at the hint of the merest delay. Some of these claims, such as those made Labour MSP Monica Lennon, are dubious and don’t stand up to scrutiny, while others are more scatter-gun and don’t examine the causes of the delays to ensure that responsibility is attributed accordingly. This ensures that the debate remains all heat and no light, and a dose of realpolitik is, like many trains, long overdue.

The last few years have seen a period of major renewal work to deliver electrification to the central belt, meaning major investment in infrastructure and rolling stock, as well as training staff on those new systems – and it’s not finished yet. Such changes take years in both planning and implementation, and it simply isn’t possible to make such changes without there being a detrimental effect on the service. This has come to a head in recent months, at the same time as a number of other unrelated issues, creating a perfect storm of falling performance and dissatisfaction.

The failure of new trains to arrive on time coincided with an overtime ban by ScotRail staff. ScotRail was already running an under manned service, reliant on staff working overtime.

So the question which the Scottish Government should be asking the franchise provider is how much of the service is under manned and what steps they are taking to rectify this? The obvious solution would seem to be to employ the right amount of staff. Indeed, it might even be noted that this is the bare minimum requirement to maintain a high level of service. Perish the thought!

As a solution to the present situation, Conservative think tank, the Adam Smith Institute are calling for privatisation of Network Rail, revisiting the previous failure of Railtrack, while Labour are calling for nationalisation. Neither argument addresses the fact that by and large the Scottish rail system is constrained by it’s geography and that it has been filled to a level where post-incident recovery is challenging in the extreme.

Network Rail and ScotRail have worked to deliver higher speed electrified infrastructure and rolling stock to central Scotland, and for that they must be congratulated. The question which the Scottish Government must now ask is, are those resources being deployed effectively?

For example, could the 15-minute service which runs from Edinburgh be reduced to a service every 20 minutes? This may not sound like a great deal of time, but on a network where there are already too many trains, small delays become compounded and there is little time for recovery. Introducing some breathing space to the system would undoubtedly reduce delays.

Short turn around times are another area which lead to delay. When a train arrives late at a terminal station and almost immediately goes back out again then that train will invariably depart late. Longer turn around times, spare staff, spare rolling stock and a minor reduction in services on our most overcrowded routes are all methods which can help to deliver a more reliable service.

With most parties committed to more trains, more routes and faster speeds, will any of them be honest enough, indeed brave enough, to find a solution to reducing delays on the rail network? Or will they instead of simply try to cause trouble among the opposition or manage the PR for what happens on their watch?

Bobby Melville

READ MORE: Abellio could lose ScotRail franchise, Scottish Government warns