Yesterday SNP Ministers published what must be the most bizarre proposals for rail services in Britain since the Tory privatisations went through.

If you just read the consultation’s blather-tastic introduction, it sounds great. We’re promised. “… an efficient railway, attuned to Scotland’s needs … coordinated, integrated … [with] passenger interests at its heart”, all harmonised with The Central Blather, i.e. “the Scottish Government’s Purpose of creating a more successful country, with opportunities for all of Scotland to flourish, through increasing sustainable economic growth.”

The reality is utterly different – a shopping list of essentially anti-passenger changes.

  1. Breaking up the franchise still further. The breakup of British Rail into franchises, ROSCOs and Railtrack (now Network Rail) didn’t work. Train companies competing with each other has complicated journey planning, made pricing opaque, and made it even harder to identify who’s responsible when something goes wrong.
    We are considering a range of options including separate franchises for sleeper services and other elements of the network such as inter-urban lines, for example the main Edinburgh – Glasgow line.” – 7, p4
    Even though, later on Ministers say “In our view the need for greater integration of activities is self-evident..” – 2.17, p16
  2.  Forcing travellers to and from England from points north of Edinburgh to change at Edinburgh. Because everyone loves changing trains unnecessarily, right? These are Scotland’s passenger miles, so they should be travelled on a train covered in a Saltire: is that really the logic?
    We are therefore considering whether services north of Edinburgh should be provided by the Scottish franchisee, with Edinburgh becoming an interchange hub for cross-border services in the east of the country in much the same way that Glasgow acts as a cross- border hub for the west of the country.” – 16, p5
    On some routes, longer-distance services could be replaced by a number of shorter-distance services terminating at an interchange station.” 5.16, p34
  3. Cutting sleeper services. These compete directly with domestic flights, and reducing them could hardly be more cack-handed if you want to cut short-haul flying. The threat is that more trains will stop at Edinburgh, and that one of the services could be removed. A passing reference to increasing financial support seems totally stranded in a sea of cuts.
    We are considering … a number of options for the future provision of sleeper services, for instance: removing or increasing financial support; and reducing the provision, either through removing the Highland or Lowland service, or by running the Lowland services to and from Edinburgh only.” – 19, p6
  4. Allowing trains to arrive later so fewer of them are officially “late”. Surely it’s obvious that increasing journey times purely to allow the operator look more reliable is not what passengers want. Why not penalise operators for running late trains instead? This gives them no incentive to make the rail network more competitive. And (see below) as an additional downside to this, we’ll get fewer trains.
    “… timetable adjustments could be made to increase the time journeys take which would allow more flexibility and thereby improve train performance levels, increasing the proportion of punctual trains. However increasing journey time may result in a reduction in the number of train services that can be provided.” – 4.8, p27
  5. More standing. First run too few trains on peak services and they’re too small. Solution? Allow them to run trains on those services so one in twenty-one people regularly have to stand, and make people stand for longer. No other option for intercity travel makes you stand.
    The carrying capacity could for example be set at 105% on certain types of service.“ 5.6, p31
    We will therefore be considering whether we should increase the time that passengers may have to stand and welcome views.” 5.7, p31
  6. Charging more for this worse service. Hilariously, the SNP are describing this Ryanair version of Scotrail as an “enhanced service”, and are consulting on an end to the inflation +1% cap on fare rises.
    These fares currently increase each January by RPI+1%..” – 6.21, p40 “… we have estimated that rail demand and revenue would continue to grow for fares increases of up to RPI+3%.” – 6.24, p40
    We are therefore considering whether those passengers receiving an enhanced service as a consequence of investment in that service should make a contribution through increased fares, rather than having all costs falling to the taxpayer.” – 6.25, p41
  7. Specifically hitting commuters with even higher increases. You know, the people who can’t travel at other times. But who can often afford to drive if it becomes uneconomic to use the train.
    We are considering increasing the differential [between peak and off-peak fares] in order to free capacity in the peak period to accommodate future growth.” – 6.27, p41
  8. Banning booze on trains. I don’t mind if people drink on trains – I mind if they’re disorderly and disruptive. Can we tackle the bad behaviour, not the drinking, please? Most of the problems are from people who are hammered before they even get on the train. Banning people drinking responsibly does nothing to improve that, and makes long distance travel less attractive to those of us who quite like a beer en route.
    … consideration is being given to whether there should be a ban on the consumption of alcohol on all trains in Scotland…” – 10.18, p59

Labour Ministers would never have had the cojones to use their power over the Scotrail franchise to reclaim it for the travelling public, but pre-2007 SNP commitments had given rise to some optimism. Even as recently as 2008, despite having extended the franchise without consultation earlier that year, SNP conference and Ministers backed public ownership.

In short, on rail, SNP rhetoric and SNP actions in government have long been out of line. But what’s driving this (pun intended)? The only plausible explanation for even considering inflicting this disastrous set of proposals on the travelling public is that we have a government which is determined to devalue public transport and which remains obsessed with saving money on it to shovel into roadbuilding schemes.

If you love your railway, or if you think (shock! horror!) it could be improved rather than treated like this, you have until 20th February to reply to this consultation, which I will do more in hope than expectation.