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Scotland’s rail network vulnerable as problems mount, regulator warns

Scotland’s rail network faces mounting problems as performance targets are missed and overspending grows on upgrade work, the rail regulator has warned.

In more bad news for Humza Yousaf, the Scottish transport minister, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) has predicted even worse problems on the network if there is bad weather this winter. Despite Network Rail cutting a key performance target to make improvements more achievable, a bad winter could further derail its plans because it has no margin left for mistakes or problems.

Humza Yousaf, Scottish transport minister. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

Yousaf has faced calls to resign after a series of breakdowns on ScotRail services closed rail lines, increased delays and cancellations, and worsened industrial action.

Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, was repeatedly challenged about the crisis at first minister’s questions on Thursday, as Labour called on the Scottish government to freeze fares next year in light of the poor performance.

Sturgeon deflected complaints by insisting ministers were pressing hard for rail improvements, adding that those included 20,000 extra seats a day and 200 new services.

She wrong-footed the leader of the Scottish Conservatives by disclosing in an answer to Ruth Davidson that ScotRail, which runs the vast majority of Scotland’s trains, was due to publish its 246-point improvement plan within days.

But the Tories hit back by publishing several angry tweets sent out by Yousaf in 2010 and 2011 about the rail services, before and after he became an MSP. In one, sent in late 2011 while he was a parliamentary aide to then first minister Alex Salmond, he branded ScotRail as “#Scotfail” and called for fare cuts.

Humza Yousaf (@HumzaYousaf)

Only 3carriages on peak morning train – completely overcrowded. Everytime there is a #scotfail can we reduce fares by 1%? @scotrail

December 21, 2011

In its half-yearly report on Network Rail’s performance – which is influenced heavily by Scottish government investment plans – the ORR disclosed that the network has already missed its average punctuality target by 2.5%, forcing it to cut its year-end regulatory goal from 92% to 91% to make it more achievable.

In order to meet that aim, the ORR has said Network Rail must meet its targets for the next four months and hope this winter’s weather is no worse than normal.

“We have carried out a detailed review of the plan and have concluded that it is robust and that the 91% target is therefore stretching but achievable (assuming an average autumn and winter),” the ORR said.

Shedding further light on delays that have beset parts of the network, the ORR said signalling performance “has deteriorated markedly since the beginning of the year, reversing the gains made during the last two years”.

It warned that Network Rail faced the prospect of running out of money, partly because the UK Department for Transport had cut its Scottish borrowing limit to £3.5bn, but also because of project cost overruns. The ORR forecast a £43m budget overspend this year, partly because the Edinburgh-Glasgow improvement project was costing £51m more than expected.

The regulator added that Network Rail was delivering the overall rail and electrical line renewal plan ahead of target but was going to again miss an interim target for the electrification of Scotland’s busiest rail line between Edinburgh and Glasgow and its enhancements programme was lagging behind performance in England and Wales.

The ORR revealed Network Rail’s difficulties were to blame for 54% of ScotRail’s “delay minutes” and 53% of those for the overnight Caledonian Sleeper services.

Sturgeon’s spokesman said the improvement plan was aimed at tackling problems facing passengers and the network. “Clearly the service to the travelling public hasn’t been as good as we would like it to be,” he said. “In overall terms, the rail service in Scotland still compares favourably to other networks across the UK, [but] the mere fact we have an improvement programme is an acknowledgement things need to get better.”

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