With the timetable change now less than 2 weeks away, there are some things which display to me that preparation for implementation is far from ready and that ScotRail are straying towards a meltdown.
As part of the capacity improvements in Scotland, ScotRail are getting two new fleets of trains. These are the High Speed Train (HST) or InterCity 125 (IC125) but with refurbished coaches, and the new-build class 385 EMU. Both of these trains are well behind schedule.
It was originally planned that most, if not all of ScotRail's new HSTs would be refurbished (in order to comply with upcoming accessibility legislation) and in service by the December 2018 timetable change. However, as of today, only one set has been refurbished. There is news that a second set is nearing completion, but this has not been confirmed. Even assuming that this second HST is up and running by the timetable change, that will leave 8 diagrams (a diagram being the services a single train is suppose to operate) per day unfilled. Of course, these trains will need maintenance, so of the 69 diagrams a week (9 on a Sunday plus a spare set) that are scheduled to be HSTs, at least 57 will be unfilled.
There are two possible solutions to this. The first is that diagrams are “phased in”. IE: The current rolling stock operates the diagrams and, as more HSTs are refurbished and brought into service, they are slowly put on the diagrams they were originally meant to be on. The problem here is that the current rolling stock is either due to go off-lease and be moved to increase capacity on routes in the North of England, or be used to increase capacity on other routes in Scotland. Either, ScotRail retains these trains for a longer period of time, and scuppers the timetable and capacity improvements for Northern, or they go off-lease when they are supposed to, and leave ScotRail without enough trains.
The second is that HSTs are used in their unrefurbished state. This can only be a temporary solution because the accessibility legislation that I mentioned earlier is due to come into force in 2020, legislation which means unrefurbished HSTs cannot operate in passenger service. However, this also has problems. Conductors have to be trained on every class of rolling stock separately. This is because the procedures for operation vary. The difference between refurbished and unrefurbished HSTs is significant enough to mean that they count as different trains from the perspective of conductor training. Therefore, conductors will have to be trained on both refurbished and unrefurbished HSTs. This doubles an already high workload. It must be noted that ScotRail has been training guards on both types of HST for a while now. But, this progress is slower than expected. I will explain the reason for this later, but firstly I will explain the situation with the other new train, the class 385.
The class 385 has become somewhat of a joke. The first sets were delivered nearly a year late. Then, whilst undergoing driver training, drivers refused to drive them in passenger service because the shape of the windscreen meant that they could not read the signals and other lineside lights properly. The trains were then taken out of training altogether whilst a solution was found. A solution was found, but this meant trains finally entering service 18 months late. Their introduction has been slow and painful, with a fleet-wide recall earlier in the year.
Because of the huge delay in the delivery of the 385, ScotRail leased some old electric trains, the class 365, as a stop-gap for the Edinburgh to Glasgow via Falkirk High line (the main line between Edinburgh and Glasgow) from June 2018. Of course, that meant another round of training for drivers and conductors on the stop-gap rolling stock.
From the December timetable change, more routes will get electric services for the first time. These are Glasgow and Edinburgh to Dunblane and Falkirk Grahamston to Glasgow Queen Street via Stepps. That means another round of driver and conductor training, possibly doubled because of the continued need for 365s to cover for missing 385s. I am worried that training is very behind for these newly electrified routes. There have been very few, if any driver training runs on the lines mentioned above. Some services have only appeared for starting on the 26th of November, giving a 2 week window to train all the drivers and conductors. I do not see how this can happen.
The solution is, again, to continue to run the current rolling stock and phase-in the electric rolling stock as more drivers and conductors become trained. However, this presents its own problems. The current rolling stock simply cannot keep up with the new trains, as the newer rolling stock accelerates faster, and has a higher maximum speed in some cases. Even on a short run, such as Falkirk Grahamston to Glasgow Queen Street via Stepps, the current rolling stock looses up to 5 minutes compared to the new trains. Furthermore, that service will be extended to Edinburgh Waverley from Falkirk Grahamston in December, running via the very congested areas around Winchburgh and Newbridge Junctions. When trains arrive into these areas late, the knock-on effects to a lot of other services are significant, especially when one takes into account the massive bottleneck that is the Haymarket to Waverley section of line in Edinburgh.
The other problem with this is that some of the current rolling stock is due to go off-lease or be moved to other parts of Scotland to help capacity problems there. I have already explained why this is a problem in the previous section about HSTs.
I mentioned earlier that training, especially for conductors, is currently behind schedule and progressing very slowly. The reason for this, other than rolling stock being delivered late and there not being enough of it to provide a service and train conductors, is that ScotRail conductors are currently on an overtime ban in a dispute over pay and terms and conditions. The RMT union want conductors to have the same additional wages for overtime and additional work as ScotRail drivers currently do. As ScotRail have refused to do this, RMT has called all its conductors to join an overtime ban. Given that a lot of training has to take place as additional hours (for already working conductors), you can see the problem.
A number of factors mean that delivering this timetable change looks like it will be a serious challenge. Late starting and slow training, delays in delivering the new rolling stock, additional training for stop-gap rolling stock and an overtime ban mean that I would be surprised if there were not some significant problems, especially during the first weeks of the timetable. I understand that some ScotRail staff are raising concerns that the upcoming deadline of December the 9th (the date of the timetable change) is going to be missed. Only the date of the timetable change will reveal how these problems manifest themselves.
An unrefurbished HST was in operation today between Aberdeen and Edinburgh. Because of a lack of staff training, some of the later runs were cancelled.
There have been a number of cancellations this week, blamed on staff shortages. In reality, these are down to staff members being taken from passenger services and put into training for the new rolling stock and routes. ScotRail are acting less than a fortnight from the timetable change. This does not bode well for the upcoming timetable change.