Scotland pushes towards a better railway

Those who do nothing make no mistakes. So the saying goes and I was reminded of it while talking to a journalist from the Scotsman newspaper of the problems ScotRail had with its Inter7City preview run from Aberdeen to Edinburgh on October 10 2018.
The journalist had alighted at Dundee after a decent sunny run along Scotland’s beautiful east coast. We left on time but braked to a halt between Leuchars and Ladybank. I don’t think many guests on board noticed the lengthening halt until a posse of fitters strode purposely through the front coach to reach the power car.
An air pipe had broken and it took a while to seal the leak sufficiently that we could carry on to reach Waverley half-an-hour late. Passengers walking from the train could doubtless hear hissing air as they passed the power car. ScotRail cancelled the return run to Aberdeen and sent the train to Haymarket depot for further repairs.
ScotRail’s senior managers were embarrassed by the failure which wasn’t anything to do with the refurbishment they were showing off. What was more important was that ScotRail had taken the plunge by boosting the quality of trains linking Scotland’s seven cities. Passengers have been riding diesel multiple units for decades following British Rail’s introduction of Class 158s and National Express’s switch to Class 170s after privatisation. Today’s three-car Class 170s are crowded and it was clear that the network needed longer trains.
Bringing HSTs makes good use of a train widely regarded as British Rail’s greatest success. They’ve been running in front line service since 1976, initially on Brunel’s billiard table from Paddingon and then on the racing straights of the East Coast Main Line. They’ve also coped with Devon’s fearsome banks and the curves and gradients on the main line through Cornwall. They’re no strangers to Aberdeen and Inverness as they provide London North Eastern Railway’s daytime links to London.
In time, ScotRail’s Aberdeen services might be seen as an Indian summer for HSTs. They’d be following a well-trodden path. When HSTs displaced Class 55 Deltics from top-link East Coast services, the Deltics found a few further years’ work to and from Aberdeen. Indeed, the final service working for the Deltics was the 1630 Aberdeen-York on December 31 1981, hauled by 55019 Royal Highland Fusilier.
With their introduction in 1961, Deltics relegated ‘Pacific’ steam locomotives – such as Gresley’s famed ‘A4’ class – to Aberdeen. In each case, services improved with the arrival of hand-me-down stock. The locomotives might not be new but they were better than what went before.
ScotRail’s HSTs are not new and there was a flurry of fuss about their age before the preview run. ScotRail Managing Director Alex Hynes countered with his belief that passengers were not bothered about age provided the service they offered was reliable. I agree but the air incident shows there’s more to good service than an internal refurbishment. Inter7City HSTs need to be reliable and that means keeping on top of some of their 40-year parts.
Their internal refurbishment looks good. It includes some neat touches such as placing the power sockets upside down so they can accommodate bulkier chargers. There’s some humour too, such as the ‘Stay Out – Live Haggis Transport’ sign on the door of the catering store. Legroom appears generous and there are bays of four seats around tables with good views from the window. First Class retains the seats from Great Western Railway’s acclaimed refurbishment a few years ago. I suspect Paddington’s passengers would have them back in an instant given the chance.
The downside is that it’s taken Wabtec at Doncaster far longer than originally thought to refurbish ScotRail’s HST trailers. Wabtec’s work included fitting power doors and controlled emission toilets. This involves cutting into the trailers which revealed more repair work than thought. No surprise really but each will be slightly different making production line techniques harder to implement.
Despite doing the work in Doncaster, Wabtec has, I’m told, struggled to find staff with rail experience. This situation is exacerbated by Hitachi opening a depot in the town to maintain its new IEP trains. Rail staff have the choice of working for a company with a 27-year deal for IEP or an overhaul company which cannot guarantee work in a market where new franchises more often than not bring new trains rather than refurbished ones.
Hitachi supplies ScotRail’s new Class 385 electric multiple units that started running Edinburgh-Glasgow Queen Street services last July. They were late after ScotRail discovered a problem with their windscreens. October saw the class withdrawn following a brake problem that was traced to a power surge zapping brake components as a train passed an overhead line neutral section.
Their withdrawal lasted only a few days but it’s a good example of the challenges that come with introducing trains, whether they are brand new or simply new to that operator or service.
The next challenge comes with December’s timetable that relies on Network Rail completing electrification work to Stirling, Dunblane and Alloa and ScotRail training sufficient crews. It’s a big ask as ScotRail faces a situation very similar to that facing Northern last spring. As I write, Network Rail has closed the tracks through Stirling. They should reopen on October 22 which is just seven weeks before December’s timetable change brings electric trains to the city.
ScotRail is confident enough to have announced its electric train plans (RAIL 863) . Hynes stood in front to television cameras to explain what was happening. Meanwhile his teams at ScotRail and Network Rail are working hard to translate their boss’s confidence into reality. I hope they succeed because Britain’s railway cannot afford to see a repeat last May’s problems. Timetabling remains on shaky foundations if the late release of Christmas 2018’s times is anything to go by.
The problems are those of a growing railway. Transport Scotland might have sat on its hands and not demanded a bigger and better railway for the country. Abellio need not have bid on the basis of major change. But between them, and with NR, they are transforming the Central Belt to almost entirely electric operation. Inter7City will cut journey times and improve services. Making these changes is always fraught with difficulties. There is much that can wrong and there’s never enough time. Problems will catch headlines and many politicians will make hay for their own ends.
Much of Scotland’s rail improvements are late but they appear more sure-footed than England’s programme that has seen, for example, Great Western’s electrification go badly awry with deadlines missed and budgets blown. Scotland is delivering what’s been promised albeit in a way it didn’t expect. Drafting Class 365s from Great Northern to cover for Class 385s proved a key move because it allowed electric Edinburgh-Glasgow services sooner than might have been. In contrast, the Department for Transport’s decision to ditch electrification to Oxford left its operator with a fleet of new electric trains that couldn’t reach one of their destination.
If there’s a lesson to be drawn from contrasting the two, then I think it lies in the competence of government oversight. Transport Scotland has managers with a clear view and experience to know the art of the possible. In contrast, the Department for Transport has not the experience to know when it’s stretching laudable ambition beyond breaking point. After all, wiring Great Western’s network to Oxford, Cardiff, Bristol and Newbury is the right thing to do. But to do it in an impossibly short timescale is as foolish as events have since proved.

This article first appeared in RAIL 864, published on October 24 2018.

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Philip Haigh

Freelance railway writer, former deputy editor at RAIL magazine - news, views and analysis of today's railway.

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