by Rab Bruce’s Spider

There was a train crash in The Netherlands yesterday. No Government Ministers are being asked to resign.

There was a dreadful tram crash in Croydon earlier in the week. No UK Government Minister is being asked to resign.

A train broke down in Edinburgh, causing severe disruption to Scotland’s rail network for a few hours … and there are calls for Transport Minister Humza Yousaf to resign.

Only in Scotland can a mechanical failure of a single train be the fault of the Government. This is, of course, because the Unionist Parties in Holyrood and their media pals will pounce on any excuse to scream that the SNP are very bad indeed. You’d think no train had ever broken down before although, as anyone who has ever been a regular commuter will tell you, such things are not, in fact, unknown. Some trains even used to break down or be cancelled when Labour’s Scottish Branch Office was in power at Holyrood. Perhaps their Transport Ministers resigned every time this happened, although I don’t recall that.

Of course, the rail disruption came at a great time for the Unionist Parties since it allowed them to deflect attention away from their refusal to support the notion that Scotland should try to remain within the European Single Market. Their blinkered British nationalism couldn’t bring them to vote in Scotland’s best interests, but they don’t want anyone to pay too much attention to that, so chaos on the railways came as a superb distraction.

They certainly made the most of it, with questions in the Holyrood chamber and the BBC headlining the story for all it was worth in attempts to put the Scottish Government on the defensive, as usual.

Amidst the furore, there were claims that the rail network should be nationalised, and most people would probably support that notion. The problem however, is that the legislation to permit such a move was a reserved matter and it is only when the additional devolved powers from the Scotland Act come into force that the Scottish Government will be able to do anything about this. Even then, it won’t be allowed to fully nationalise the service. All it will be able to do is establish a publicly owned Company which can bid for the franchise in competition with private Companies and other countries’ state rail operators such as Abellio who recently won the Scotrail franchise. Labour’s calls for a nationalised rail service are particularly hypocritical since, during their thirteen years in power at Westminster, they did absolutely nothing to devolve power over the rail network to Holyrood.

But there is another aspect to the hypocrisy of the Unionist politicians and media. We constantly hear them complain that the SNP is a centralising and controlling Party who should allow Local Authorities and other institutions to get on with their jobs without interference. Yet, as soon as a train breaks down, they demand that the Scottish Government interfere. Sorry, but you can’t have it both ways.

Now, it must be said that, if you are a commuter stuck in the middle of such a disruption, it is very annoying indeed. Been there, done that. It is also true that it is incumbent upon the Scottish Government to monitor the performance of a company which is running the rail franchise, but you cannot expect a Government Minister to resign because one train broke down, no matter how much chaos that caused. If that were the case, the Westminster Government would soon run out of Transport Ministers because, believe it or not, Scotrail’s performance is better than the operators in most parts of the UK. If you want to know what a dreadful train service is like, try commuting in the South of England.

Still, while we are on the subject of railways, it must be said that other countries run their rail networks much more efficiently than anywhere in the UK. We also face problems of track capacity and old rolling stock, and these things must be addressed. It really shouldn’t be too much to ask that our trains run on time and have sufficient capacity to carry the increasing number of people who wish to travel by train. Lower fares wouldn’t hurt either. Some of these things are outwith the control of the Scottish Government but some can be, and are being, addressed, although the work will take a long time.

Having said that, it cannot be denied that rail services in Central Scotland are significantly better than they were ten years ago. As someone who used to commute to and from Edinburgh on a daily basis, I can well remember the continual doubt as to whether I would be able to actually get onto an overcrowded train at all. That sort of fear is, by and large, less of an issue nowadays.

We’ve also seen the electrification of many routes and the opening of the Borders railway although that latter project is, predictably, suffering regular delays due to the job being done on the cheap and the line consisting of a single track in far too many places. Demand has, though, exceeded expectations, which can only be viewed as a good thing.

Of course, things are much worse when you go north of the River Forth. There is a lot of work to do to bring many routes up to scratch. Whether Abellio are up to the task remains to be seen. They certainly seem, from an outsider’s perspective, to be more interested in cutting costs than on improving the service. Their plans to have driver-only trains is particularly disappointing since it not only has a potentially dangerous effect in terms of safety for all passengers, but also discriminates against disabled passengers, many of whom are unable to board a train without assistance from a guard.

So let’s not kid ourselves that the rail system in Scotland is perfect. It’s far from it and the work to upgrade and make further improvements will be never-ending. Equally, let’s not get ourselves worked into a froth when something goes wrong. And if something does go wrong, let’s make sure any blame is directed at the right place. It is down to Abellio to operate the trains and it is down to them to minimise the disruption. Humza Yousaf is a talented guy, but he’s not a railway mechanic as far as I know.