Detailed Assessment

Since March 2020, Scotland’s Railway, along with the rest of the public transport network, has seen a significant reduction in patronage.

As demand increases over the coming months and years, we expect passengers to use the railway in different ways, travelling at different times and for different purposes than before. At the same time, there has been a recognition that rail services require a significant level of financial subsidy despite only accounting for a small proportion of the journeys people make across Scotland.

The ScotRail timetable has been reviewed network wide to ensure that the service level meets the needs of our customers and our funders as Scotland comes out of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the future.

When developing the specification for services on each route, there were several priorities for consideration, including:

  • Performance and reliability;
  • Capacity for when people want to travel; and
  • Value for money for customers and the Scottish Government.

In the future, we know that rail will have a significant role in the decarbonisation of the transport network. By making changes to the service that we provide today, we can ensure that rail is best placed to support that.

Research by Transport Focus has highlighted the key priorities for improvement that our passengers expect from ScotRail. Of these, three of the top six priorities are centred around performance and reliability:

  • “More trains arrive on time than happens now;
  • “Less frequent major unplanned disruptions to your journey; and
  • “Fewer trains cancelled than happens now.”

For many years, the Scottish railway industry has increased capacity by running additional services. However, as these have been added to the network and passenger volumes have increased, network resilience has decreased and this has impacted on performance. Service performance through the pandemic has been significantly improved compared to 2019. For example, the industry standard by which ScotRail is held to account - the Public Performance Measure (PPM), where a train must arrive at its destination no more than five minutes late having called at all intermediate stations - reached a moving annual average of 93 per cent in the twelve months to 1 May 2021.

Whilst this performance improvement can be put down against a scaled down timetable and reduced patronage, it shows that the railway network can perform well. It’s imperative that punctuality and reliability is maintained so that as customers return to the railway, they can enjoy a service where more trains arrive on time.

ScotRail has undertaken a review of the level of customer demand in 2019, comparing it to the level of train capacity being provided. This review has shown that in 2019, there was a significant level of over-capacity being provided on all routes at significant cost to the Scottish Government.

Looking to the future, the research and insight we have has shown customers will continue to use rail, but travel behaviour will be different. As such, we must now develop timetables that meet the future needs of customers rather than simply reverting to a pre-COVID timetable.

We have analysed capacity through a comparison of how far passengers travel, as journey miles, and the level of capacity that we provide as seat miles. With this metric, there were an average of 5,486,000 passenger journey miles on a typical Monday to Friday in 2019, compared to 23,588,000 seat miles provided in the May 2019 timetable, an average daily occupancy of just 23 per cent of seat miles provided. In other words, seats were empty for 77 per cent of the distance travelled.

Figure 1 shows the occupation rate when comparing passenger journey miles against seat miles for 2019 and the first quarter of 2020. Peaks of increased seat occupancy can be seen during August 2019, driven by special events, such as the Edinburgh International Festivals, and during the festive period. The rapid reduction in rail use can be clearly seen in March 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure 1 ScotRail Average Seat Occupation by Distance

Figure 1. ScotRail Average Seat Occupation by Distance

The data presents an average across the whole day and we know from service level reviews that peak services would often be full and standing on many routes as they approach city centres. However, in combination with the average daily analysis, this shows that off-peak services were much quieter than the average daily occupancy.

The level of over-capacity varied across the network. Intercity services between the Central Belt and Aberdeen and between the Central Belt and Inverness performed better than other services in Scotland, with an average daily occupancy of around 35 per cent to 41 per cent of seat miles. The route between Glasgow and East Kilbride was the best performing suburban service with an average daily occupancy of 39 per cent of seat miles, whereas the next best performing suburban route was Glasgow to Ardrossan and Largs with an average daily occupancy of 28 per cent of seat miles. The two largest service groups operated by ScotRail, the North Electric Line between Edinburgh, North Lanarkshire, Glasgow and Dunbartonshire and the Argyle Line between Lanarkshire and Glasgow, were amongst the poorest performing with average daily occupancy of 17 per cent and 15 per cent of seat miles respectively.

More detail on costs, revenue, and customer use of our train services can be found in in our Route by Route Key Metric Assessment.

The ScotRail network has always required subsidy from government to operate. The rail network in Scotland has grown significantly in the last 15 years, with new routes and stations added and more services operating. As the network has expanded and the number of train services increased, the total costs of the industry, including maintaining and renewing the track and signalling, has generally risen at a greater rate than revenue generated from passengers.

The Emergency Measures Agreements (EMAs) from the Scottish Government have further increased the level of financial support for the railway during the COVID-19 pandemic. These have ensured that rail services have continued to operate despite the significant reduction in revenue. However, this additional funding has cast a light on the overall cost of Scotland’s Railway to the taxpayer. Combined with the need to ensure that rail services are punctual and with the large level of over-capacity being provided, there is an opportunity to take control of operating costs and build a more sustainable railway for the future.

The Scottish Government’s pre-COVID rail budget for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 financial years was £989 million and £1,264 million respectively. This covered subsidy for the ScotRail and Caledonian Sleeper franchises, and funding to Network Rail Scotland for operations, maintenance, renewals, and enhancements. It excludes additional funding through the EMAs.

In 2019, rail accounted for 22 per cent of all public transport journeys in Scotland, with 5.4 per cent of mode share for travel to work and 2.3 per cent mode share for all journeys. Click here to find out more.

A review of ScotRail’s operating costs was undertaken for the 2019-20 financial year.

ScotRail’s costs can be separated into the following broad categories:

  • Rolling stock costs, including leasing and maintaining trains, diesel fuel or electricity and the Variable Track Access Charge paid to Network Rail which covers wear and tear of the rail network.
  • Staff costs, including drivers, conductors, ticket examiners, station, hospitality, head office and support staff.
  • Station and depot costs, including leasing facilities from Network Rail, utility, and maintenance costs.
  • Other costs including sales and marketing, information technology, insurance, staff training, alternate transport during periods of disruption and shared industry costs for services such as policing, ticketing and safety

In addition to the direct cost of operating passenger train services through ScotRail, Transport Scotland funds Network Rail to operate, maintain and renew the rail infrastructure through a direct grant and a Fixed Track Access Charge paid by ScotRail. These payments were just over £600million in 2019-20 and are not included within the analysis undertaken by ScotRail.

ScotRail’s revenue in 2019-20 from passenger fares and other activities such as advertising, property rentals and maintaining trains for other customers was £397.5million. Operating costs (excluding the Fixed Track Access Charge paid to Network Rail) was £641million resulting in a shortfall between costs and revenue of £243.5million.

Had the COVID-19 pandemic not occurred, revenue would have been slightly higher in March 2020 and the net shortfall reduced by around £10million.

It is accepted that a network which operates a mixture of intercity, commuter and lifeline services will require some form of public subsidy; that is, not every route will generate more revenue than the cost of providing services. However, in 2019-20, the only services where revenue was greater than operating costs was the route between Edinburgh and Glasgow via Falkirk High, with intercity services from Glasgow and Edinburgh to Aberdeen close to break even. The average subsidy required per passenger journey was £2.55, noting that this does not include costs for operating, maintaining and renewing rail infrastructure.

The significant cost of Scotland’s Railway combined with the fiscal challenge placed on public spending by the COVID-19 pandemic, means we must look at becoming more efficient so that this vital transport network can remain financially sustainable into the future. The train service provided by ScotRail must be designed in such a way as to be as attractive to customers as possible whilst using staff and trains efficiently and also allowing Network Rail sufficient access to maintain and improve the network. Our analysis has shown that we could be balancing these conflicting needs more effectively. A vital first step is not to just revert to the historical train service plans as passenger demand recovers from the pandemic as this will increase the cost to the taxpayer by £30 to £40 million per year. Looking further forward, we will be looking at how we can be more fleet of foot and vary train services or the number of carriages to better match variances in passenger demand across the week and throughout the year.

More detail on costs, revenue, and customer use of our train services can be found in in our Route by Route Key Metric Assessment.

Details of the Monday to Saturday timetable that ScotRail plan to introduce following the consultation can be found here. This timetable will be a new starting point for future timetable development. We will use lessons learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic, along with new methods of analysis, to continue refining and improving the timetable that we offer. The timetable will provide enough capacity to carry the number of customers who travelled with ScotRail in 2019-20, enable a better performing railway, whilst having a positive impact on ScotRail and Network Rail’s operating costs. We will deliver a timetable that is sustainable in the short to medium term, whilst continuing to react to the changes that will see in the future as customer behaviours continue to evolve. In the longer term, we will work with the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland as they use all the powers within their control to create a net-zero society in Scotland.

The consultation period closed on 2 October 2021.

ScotRail undertook a public consultation for the May 2022 timetable in the autumn of 2021. The objectives of this were:

  • To identify areas where the proposed timetable could be improved to better meet the needs of customers without materially adding cost.
  • To manage expectations about the level of service we will provide in the coming months and years by providing context to the forecast of customers returning to rail travel, as well as the need to provide a cost-efficient railway.
  • To be open and transparent about the future timetable with our staff, customers, and stakeholders.

The consultation set out why ScotRail’s timetable needs to change, shared the service specification for May 2022, along with draft Monday to Saturday timetables, and provided an opportunity for stakeholders and members of the public to respond.

We are excited with the level of engagement that we have saw from across Scotland and would like to thank everyone who provided feedback. We reviewed everything that you have told us and considered what changes should be made in response. Our findings are now available.

To see the outcome of the consultation...
Click here