I was in Edinburgh last week. Wednesday morning saw me waiting on a busy Haymarket platform 2 waiting to catch the 8.38 home to Inverness. I catch that train a lot, and for three reasons. First, it’s direct, meaning I don’t have to wait in the wind-tunnel of Perth Station. Second, it tends to be fairly quiet, meaning I should be able to get on with some work. And third, it’s the fastest direct service of the day, aiming to get me north in 3 hours 21 minutes.
Haymarket is unlike any station in the north of Scotland. Rather than the half dozen trains that might rumble through in a day up here, half a dozen whizz past every few minutes. Which is why, as a sleek Inter-city pulled up at platform 2, I stepped back to allow others to get on; clearly this train was not destined for the Highlands.
I glanced up at the information board. The Inverness train was, apparently, ‘due’. I checked my watch and looked again at the train. This long, clean and bright beast couldn’t really for me, could it? I yelled my question down the platform; the surprise answer came back. I threw my bag on and slammed the door behind me as the train began to ease away.
Goodness. How conditioned we Highlanders have become to expecting the worst from Scotrail. I had been convinced this posh train wasn’t for us. Even the ticket-collector was surprised; an hour earlier he’d been told that the service had been cancelled.
I took to Twitter and was informed by a chatty ‘CT’ that I was on a ‘Classic’ (i.e. 40-year-old) Intercity high-speed train, which, CT wrote, ‘will be upgraded to #Inter7city standard over the next year.’ Despite a lack of table seats, I was smitten. This old bird may have been 40-plus, but, like many of her vintage, she was sleek, stylish, welcoming and – on this occasion – reliable. There were power sockets and a trolley service too. We rolled quietly north and slid gracefully into Inverness station on schedule.
I know – I was lucky. A train turned up. It had heating, sockets and comfortable seats for all, and crucially, it ran on time. How many Scotrail passengers can say the same for their recent journeys?
In the four years since Abellio took over Scotrail trains, our hopes of getting a service with the same efficiency, reliability, cleanliness and – dare we have wished for it – value for money as Abellio deliver in The Netherlands, have sunk without trace. In the run up to Christmas, with industrial action and staff shortages compounding the late delivery of new rolling-stock, the company rightly had its knuckles rapped by The Scottish Government. And just as the problems reached their worst, an average ticket price increase of 2.8% was announced.
The service we get is poor, and although new trains are promised between Scotland’s seven major cities, will they materialise? Will the new trains solve problems of reliability and staff shortages? Will journey times and ticket prices be slashed? And what will happen beyond the cities, such as between Inverness and Wick and Thurso, or Inverness and Kyle?
During my smooth journey north, I took advantage of the excellent Wi-Fi to ask these questions on Twitter. But as my questions became more pointed, CT became less chatty. Yes, there would be a reduction in journey time between Inverness and the central belt, but only of 10 minutes. But of the rest? Silence.
At the same time as I was travelling my 150 miles north, Mr Marr was on a train from Edinburgh to London, 400 miles south. My journey time was 201 minutes; his just 250 minutes. And no, there wasn’t much difference in ticket price.
That speaks volumes. In the north we need and deserve better trains, which are more reliable and can go faster. We need and deserve more than the single-track lines we have. We need and deserve not to be treated as third-class citizens. Is anyone listening?