Think travelling by ScotRail is a nightmare? Try getting your money back …
THE complexity of the ScotRail compensation website for customers is somewhere between bewildering and utterly Byzantine.
Just about everything short of your mother’s maiden name is demanded — and it’s not as if you’re guaranteed a pay-out to cover the full ticket price anyway.
I tried to claim for a cancelled service — but gave up after being constantly re-routed to the page where you have to add in your bank details.
Others have been more successful, and more than £400,000 has been paid out from ScotRail coffers to compensate its long-suffering clientele since April.
That was when it was nationalised, taking a crucial public service out of the hands of cack-handed private operators after years of chaotic mismanagement.
It was the darkest of ironies that the SNP Government, with its long record of maladministration, was the organisation that then took up the reins.
The result has been predictable enough, with months of industrial action and timetable cuts turning the railway into a strictly part-time service — a kind of CalMac on wheels.
On Saturday, an RMT walkout over pay — after an offer which would have seen a hike of up to 7.5 per cent was turned down by union chiefs — meant trains were running on only three routes in Scotland, until 6.30 pm.
Many of the rugby fans heading to Murrayfield stadium in Edinburgh would have had to make other arrangements — while beyond the Central Belt rail travel temporarily ceased to exist.
A lot of disaffected ScotRail passengers have switched to the bus, or car, and it’s a safe bet that large numbers will give the train a wide berth in future.
There have been daily cancellations, often at short notice, since October 14, thanks to an overtime and rest day working ban by members of the RMT.
ScotRail depends on staff to work rest days and overtime, so we can expect more severe disruption until more staff are hired.
Yet wasn’t nationalisation presented to the travelling public as something of a panacea?
For Nicola Sturgeon, it was a ‘historic and momentous occasion [which] marks the delivery of a key milestone in our ambitious Programme for Government to support a greener, fairer, more prosperous Scotland’.
In fact, within weeks crippling staffing shortages led to timetable cuts, with 600 routes axed every day.
The last train from Edinburgh to Fife or Dundee back in late May left at 8pm, while the final Edinburgh-Glasgow service departed at 10.15pm.
The fat cat bosses of the Aslef train drivers’ union — who commanded their well-paid drivers not to work on rest days — correctly calculated that ScotRail, under the political control of a Left-wing SNP/Green Government, would be a soft touch.
In June, ScotRail offered drivers a 5 per cent pay increase, which was accepted, setting in motion a host of hefty salary demands and threats of industrial unrest from other public sector workers, including teachers, which remain unresolved.
That cauterised the bitter dispute for a while — but a return to full normality has proved elusive in the past few months as the RMT, buoyed by Aslef’s success, stepped up its programme of strikes.
Some commuters may have become inured to this turmoil — it’s only to be expected — and in any event many are simply opting for other forms of transport.
Passenger numbers slumped because of home working during the pandemic, and between April and June this year they stood at around 60 per cent of 2019 levels in Scotland, the lowest percentage of all UK rail operators.
Most of us don’t much care how the railway is funded or managed as long as the trains turn up, but for the SNP ideology is all.
Student union politics of the kind espoused by Miss Sturgeon and her colleagues are all very well — but cold hard reality has intervened, as it usually does, exposing the assumption that ‘government knows best’ as entirely baseless.
The rail unions fought for ‘key worker’ status for their members during the lockdowns, and secured it.
But when the country started to emerge from the worst of the pandemic, they re-paid their fellow key workers — including nurses, doctors and supermarket staff — by staging strike action.
There’s no doubt the unions are fuelling rail disruption, but the underlying problems are systemic — and ultimately they now belong to the SNP Government.
It says it respects the rail workers’ right to strike, though whether that respects extends to the right of everybody else to get to work on time, or at all, isn’t quite so clear.
Privatisation allows for greater accountability, as private firms can be penalised for the suspension of services — a powerful incentive for staff recruitment, which would have allowed more services to run during strike action.
Now we’re back in the era of much-ridiculed British Rail, light years away from the rail renaissance promised by the SNP.
As you struggle to negotiate the labyrinth of the Delay Repay website, remember that eight of ScotRail’s highest earners take home over £1.32million between them.
They preside over a network locked in more or less permanent crisis, or on the brink of it, where failure on every level has become deeply ingrained.
If you are lucky enough to squeeze onto a train, and if a driver turns up, be prepared to stand in crammed, filthy carriages.
The BBC documentary series Inside Central Station presents a somewhat idealised picture of life for the average rail commuter.
In one recent episode, Miss Sturgeon herself made a cameo appearance, being escorted by station staff to a train to London, which — embarrassingly for all concerned — was running late.
That was a slightly warmer reception than I received the other week — when I was turned away from a packed train by a ScotRail employee who said it was too busy to be safely boarded — but then there have to be some benefits of high office.
The First Minister sought sanctuary from the travelling public in a waiting room before the short trip to her train, when it was ready to leave — a downgrade from her chauffeur-driven limo, but at least her Green cohorts would have been pleased.
Who knows whether she found a moment to listen to some music on her trip, but I do have a song recommendation for future journeys — feel free to add it to your own playlist and listen as you’re making your way to the bus stop, or taxi rank, after finding out your train has been cancelled.
It’s by The Hollies and entitled King Midas in Reverse — with the lyric ‘He’s not the man to hold our trust/Everything he touches turns to dust’.
And there’s a catchy chorus: ‘He’s King Midas with a curse/He’s King Midas in reverse.’
The lyric may require the odd pronoun tweak — but thematically it’s a more than fitting soundtrack for the SNP’s 15 years in power.
- This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on November 1, 2022.
- *Follow me on Twitter: @GrahamGGrant