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"Railways - The gift that keeps on giving to newshounds" by Alastair Dalton, Transport Correspondent at Scotsman Publications: Edinburgh meeting of 19 November 2019

Alastair Dalton, Transport Correspondent at Scotsman Publicationsd

Alastair Dalton, Transport Correspondent at Scotsman Publications.

© John Yellowlees 2019

Since just after the start of this century Alastair Dalton has been the transport correspondent of The Scotsman, also Scotland on Sunday and appears the Edinburgh Evening News.

While some might feel that he has been there too long, others see transport as a cushy brief : and there is no doubt that it is railways more than any other mode that keep him in a job.

A predecessor had joked about looking in the mirror each morning and vowing not to write about the railways today, but always failing miserably. As a structure of an infrastructure owner, franchise-holders and rolling-stock companies bound together by statute and contractors, rail was a parallel universe of well-worn jargon compacted into a different language whose inhabitants spoke about "up" and "down", "changing ends" and "strengthening" in which "grandfather rights" could be invoked to prevent consistency of improvement.

As the Scottish Government's largest single contract worth an eye-watering amount, ScotRail was the preserve of the chattering classes including MSPs influenced by their own journeys to and from the Parliament. An enclosed system that spewed data as it ate up money, rail also embraced many aspects of our culture and heritage ranging from the Forth and Tay Bridges through historical plaques and community adoption of stations to Corrour, setting for a memorable scene in "Trainspotting", and had its own army of passionate defenders coming to its aid in the face of any criticism.

With its complex interfaces and adversarial industrial relations, rail could be relied on to generate a wealth of negative headlines. The annual fares increase gave the press a triple whammy : in July whose Retail Price Index set the increase for next year, in December when the new fares were announced and then in the dark hours of hungover New Year when they actually took effect.

Weather-related disruption was often good for a story, and project delays and cost overruns as exemplified by Edinburgh Trams would always excite comment. Coverage of train service performance was sometimes enhanced when operators tried to put a spin on their failings such as that they were running more trains. With their bitter rivalries the unions could be relied on to overstimulate comment by wild talk of strike action causing "carnage" - but sometimes the theme reverted to old-fashioned simplicity, such as painting rails white to avert critical temperatures.

Onetime ScotRail media guru Eddie Toal had famously quipped "Disruption over? My arse!" While a measure of externally-driven disruption was inevitable, the rail industry seemed sometimes needlessly to make things worse for itself. The Borders Railway had been built with too much single track, making it prone to delays and cancellations, and providing structures only wide enough for one line would make any future doubling much more expensive and disruptive. ScotRail cycle-carrying on dedicated Class 153s had yielded positive headlines just as LNER Azumas' cycle-carrying arrangements were deemed dangerous, and no less a person than the Scottish Government's active travel champion had taken issue with the design of cycle-hooks on ScotRail's refurbished HSTs.

After both GNER and National Express had handed back the keys, it was no surprise when a Virgin-Stagecoach consortium promising to pay out even more went on to fail. Similarly inexplicable was how Class 385s ran for months on the E&G without trouble, only for ASLEF to discover that curved windscreens made drivers see double at Paisley. A consultation by Transport Scotland on the future of ScotRail from 2014 could be explained only as playing devil's advocate when it recommended all manner of cuts, exciting widespread fears before backing down on almost all of them. ASLEF's ScotRail drivers proudly boasted about shunning ScotRail trains on journeys to Inverness in favour of East Coast's HSTs - what would they do now that ScotRail was getting HSTs but LNER were going over to Azumas? And the ScotRail story about the arrival of HSTs was soured when, right on cue, a set destined for Scotland caught fire in the West Country, then the slow pace of refurbishment meant that staff had to be trained on both sliding and slam door variants, resulting in huge training programmes which caused cancellations owing to members of traincrew being unavailable.

Even the provision at Kings Cross of a statue to Sir Nigel Gresley, designer of record-breaking locomotive Mallard, degenerated into a row over whether he should be depicted with a duck at his feet. The Flying Banana test train was hailed as bringing performance excellence to the network until a breakdown in Queen Street Tunnel revealed the shortcomings of its own performance. Even the managing director became furious when ScotRail pleading not enough hot water cut the size of a coffee by far more than the price.

A driver not at fault when his train derailed under him at Stonehaven was then failed on a drugs test and found to have failed a previous test also at ScotRail while a conductor. The world's most celebrated steam locomotive Flying Scotsman was almost prevented from making a headline-grabbing Scottish appearance when Network Rail tried to plead that it hadn't got round to checking gauge-clearances. ScotRail were found to have switched deliveries of their own fuel from rail to road. Abellio headquartered in the cycle-friendly Netherlands raised eyebrows by advocating leaving cycles at the start of the rail journey and hiring at the destination, yet their Bike & Go scheme had been axed after proving hopelessly unattractive. Eating on the move was a benefit of rail travel, but today there were shortages of catering staff. Guests attending the opening of the new Bathgate Station in October 2010 were surprised to go home by bus after a test-train caught fire, and much anger had been expressed at conditions on the last Saturday night of this year's Edinburgh Festivals. However all this paled into insignificance compared with the torrid times lately endured by Caledonian Sleeper whose new trains had been halted by binding brakes but slid unable to stop through Waverley, while passengers found themselves unable to get coffee or breakfast due to faults or staff shortage and following complaints about unchanged beds a cleaning contractor had had to be sacked.

The jury was still out on the ScotRail HSTs, an iconic design offering greater capacity, comfort and speed, but the sight of one belching smoke at Queen Street sat uneasily with the Scottish Government's decarbonising aspirations. Other current concerns included the Edinburgh Glasgow Improvement Programme having promised more 42-minute journeys but these would be actually reduced in the winter timetable : Smartcards achieving a 10% share of journeys against a target of 60% at a time when contactless was coming to look a better bet : a much-vaunted Scenic Trains package which had turned into a cardboard mini-hamper; and waterproofing failing to prevent flooding at Winchburgh on Scotland's busiest inter-city line. How would passengers react to Scotland's newest train, the driverless Subway, and why did the railway industry so often boast about delivering only the things that a passenger had every right to expect?

Sometimes the most positive stories were the quirkiest ones. Thus the Class 365s that came to the rescue during delayed delivery of new 385s were dubbed "happy trains" because of the shape of their radiator grilles. Community regeneration of surplus buildings sometimes produced memorable results, while automation of request stops might end one of the oddest passenger experiences. Removal of Queen Street's "horrid" frontage had been accompanied by a tug-of-love tale over whether this Glasgow station could reclaim from Cumbernauld the clock that had once graced the lost one of St Enoch. Abseilers ended a nine-day blockage by a snowdrift on the North Berwick branch, and the proposed Forth Bridge Experience would give visitors a world-class day to remember.

All human life was on the railways, with cafes at stations holding out the prospect of a Brief Encounter, women firing steam locomotives on heritage lines, the enduring popularity of railways shown in 22,000 applicants for 100 train-driver jobs and the Police advocating a calming blue light to deter suicides at Cornton Level Crossing. GPS prevented train toilets from discharging at stations, the runaway fame of the Harry Potter viaduct at Glenfinnan had congested local roads, Anderson's Piano remained for now a remarkable survival pending possible replacement by a hi-tech "hills have ears" system in the Pass of Brander and when millions of midges darkened the lights at Barrhill Station in South Ayrshire the successful solution led by station adopter Louis Wall was to introduce strong-smelling lemon eucalyptus. The list of stories was endless in the separate planet that was the railways and kept on giving to grateful newshounds.

Report and photograph by John Yellowlees.


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