Morning mayhem and a rail network stuck in the sidings…

By Graham Grant

MANY wearied commuters may well have reflected that ScotRail should relaunch itself as a bus service.

After all, passengers are herded onto ‘replacement’ coaches often enough when there’s a problem with the trains…

One of the firm’s great innovations is a ‘smartcard’, a pale imitation of London’s Oyster scheme, which is so glitch-prone that most customers conclude it’s far easier sticking with old-fashioned paper tickets.

But yesterday marked something of a new low, with customers stranded on trains that idled on the tracks, tantalisingly close to their destination, because of engineering works that overran in Rutherglen, Lanarkshire.

A journey that normally takes me ten minutes lasted around an hour yesterday, and much of it was spent at a complete standstill; it would have been quicker to walk, but ScotRail staff didn’t warn me of the delays ahead.

Still, at least it gave me a chance to monitor social media and see how fellow passengers were reacting (notwithstanding the lack of wi-fi, but you can’t have everything).

One woman tweeted her boyfriend was stuck on an overcrowded train just outside Central Station in Glasgow – where I also spent a lot of my morning yesterday – and he was beginning to feel faint.

Ominously, ScotRail didn’t respond to that message…

True, it’s hardly the stuff of Hollywood disaster movies – with Bruce Willis clambering on top of carriages and dragging passengers to safety – but it is a mess, and would have been eminently avoidable, with a little more planning and communication.

Network Rail engineering works took longer to complete than anticipated, but then it’s hardly a surprise that Monday traditionally comes after Sunday, and that people tend to go to work by train on weekdays, even during peak holiday season.

The alternative would have been to suspend some services – which did eventually happen.

Complete shutdown was activated during the ‘Beast from the East’ whiteout back in March, when you’ll remember that public transport collapsed in quite spectacular style.

Yet, even when they are running, travelling by rail can be pretty unpleasant.

A couple of years ago, I got on a ScotRail train to discover a large area of the carriage floor was covered in dried blood.

Whether the result of a nosebleed, or a brawl, I never discovered – but it was akin to a scene from The Shining.

Former Transport Minister Humza Yousaf was a past master at fielding enquiries on social media from the travelling public, many of whom were less than impressed, and extremely keen to convey their views.

His successor Michael Matheson, fresh from presiding over the virtual meltdown of Scottish policing, has replaced Mr Yousaf, and yesterday steered clear of Twitter – as he did in the justice brief, he adopted the brace position, and kept quiet.

Who could blame Mr Matheson for muting ‘ScotRail’ on his Twitter feed, after his tumultuous time as minister in charge of undermining the justice system, and his effective demotion to a job that is as much of a poisoned chalice as Police Scotland Chief Constable?

He may be enjoying a well-earned break, but he is minister for ‘connectivity’ – and infrastructure – as well as transport, so he could presumably keep tabs on the carnage on his phone, wherever he is in the world…

From one failing public service to another – this is a well-worn route for all government ministers, of course, but at least they have the relative luxury of their taxpayer-funded, chauffeur-driven cars – not for them the vagaries of ScotRail.

Mr Yousaf, while active on Twitter at times of transport mayhem, was in a state of constant denial, citing dubious sky-high figures on punctuality and passenger satisfaction – ideal training for dealing with crime figures at the justice ministry…

Nicola Sturgeon, a non-driver, isn’t exactly a ScotRail regular – back in 2016 it emerged she had never travelled on a ScotRail train in her role as First Minister (though at that time she had billed taxpayers for a total of more than £330 for two first-class tickets to London while in office).

She’s better known for travelling by air in her trademark ‘Nicolopter’, bypassing the gridlock and gazing down on all the stalled trains…

For those who take to the roads, it’s hardly a smoother ride: motoring itself is a high-cost activity, from insurance – still eye-wateringly expensive, despite a fall in premiums across the UK – to road tax, general maintenance and fuel.

The number of breakdowns caused by potholes is at a three-year high, with 4,091 call-outs in the UK between April and last month for damaged shock absorbers, broken suspension springs or distorted wheels – faults caused by poor road surfaces.

It’s not exactly a surprise: back in May, we revealed that Scottish councils are spending less on repairing potholes than five years ago – despite a £500million repairs backlog – while councils received 255 complaints about craterous road conditions every day last year.

Local authorities say a ‘measly’ £10million Scottish Government handout is not enough to tackle the damage caused by the severe wintry weather in March, but Finance Secretary Derek Mackay has held firm, insisting he will not provide more cash.

Money is tight – despite Mr Mackay hiking taxes, and despite a £450million underspend – cash the minister is hoarding because he says he wants to be ‘prudent with our resources’. (Better late than never – a bit like ScotRail…)

The trouble is that so much has already been wasted on all manner of giveaways, like baby boxes and ‘free’ prescriptions, and ‘free’ lunches for some primary pupils, about a fifth of whom refuse them, despite investment of nearly £100million in the scheme in the first two years.

Starved of cash, many of our roads now resemble the aftermath of war-time tank battles.

But why not blame it all on Brexit – the SNP’s favoured bogeyman after it got bored of blaming Westminster – or austerity, or the Tories, or indeed all of the above?

Devolution created a costly mechanism for the avoidance, or transference, of culpability, operated by a legion of buck-passers and bureaucrats.

We’re governed by a ruling elite travelling in first-class, or in vehicles they haven’t paid for and don’t have to maintain – because the taxpayer foots the bill.

Mr Yousaf, who famously bragged that he wasn’t a transport expert, does drive, but was charged for doing so without insurance – a setback that didn’t prevent him continuing in the job (or indeed being promoted to Justice Secretary).

He and his colleagues should try slumming it now and again with the rest of us in cramped, stifling carriages, or on Third World roads, allowing them to demonstrate solidarity with the long-suffering commuter.

And naturally they could always keep the chauffeur – or the ‘Nicolopter’ – on standby, if at all gets too much…