Waverley meltdown reveals ScotRail’s lack of resilience

Inside Transport: Why did Edinburgh’s rail hub descend into near chaos on Saturday night?

Friday, 30th August 2019, 7:00 am
Borders Railway passengers were among those caught in the major disruption. Picture: Ross Ryrie
Borders Railway passengers were among those caught in the major disruption. Picture: Ross Ryrie

The text message came in while I was sitting outside at a party in Glasgow shortly after 10pm on Saturday: “Absolute carnage in Waverley tonight. I have never seen it as bad.”

My source was not exaggerating, but I could not believe the extent of it. The ScotRail Journeycheck website even advised passengers to “make their own travel arrangements” because of overcrowding between Edinburgh’s main station and Haymarket. That was simply extraordinary.

The industry staffer who texted me painted an alarming picture that was repeated in many messages, photos and videos posted by passengers on social media into the night. “Cancelled trains lots” came the next text from my source. “Hundreds of passengers not able to get on services, police at almost every train for crowd control...no management in attendance...I can’t keep up with the disruption.”

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But even with Edinburgh Festival crowds and a Scotland v France rugby match at Murrayfield, how could this have happened? ScotRail is highly experienced at dealing with crowds from big events and, with new trains, it’s never had so many carriages on main lines from the capital such as to Glasgow and Dunblane.

We await the findings of ScotRail’s internal inquiry, but it appears that a “perfect storm” of circumstances contributed to what appears to have resulted in near chaos, according to its definition as “complete disorder and confusion”.

ScotRail operations director David Simpson said: “A number of unexpected incidents caused significant issues on the network, with a trespassing incident and a train fault adding to a handful of cancellations following some late call offs.”

Trains are understood to have been halted on a secondary Edinburgh-Glasgow line at Curriehill in western Edinburgh, and a train on the main line between the cities was stopped for 30 minutes at Linlithgow after a passenger activated an alarm because of the crush on board and the driver was unable to release the brakes.

I have been told that two drivers’ shifts had also not been covered and last-minute replacements had to be found, although ScotRail has not made clear whether this caused any further cancellations.

On the basis of what we know so far and what I have been told from within the rail industry, two conclusions can be drawn.

First, Saturday’s events demonstrate once again that the railways are a sitting duck, prone to disruption from a wide range of causes over which they have no control.

This can be anything from people straying onto tracks, as happened, to others, all too often, taking their own lives. Trees on adjoining land can blow down, damaging overhead power lines. Even fires in nearby garages have stopped services because of explosion dangers.

Trains can’t steer round obstacles like on the roads, and there are often no diversion routes.

But secondly, I hear that despite ScotRail’s new trains and recruiting more staff, it still has limited resilience when situations escalate.

While many of its new electric fleet has arrived, most of the refurbished diesel trains for long distance inter-city routes have yet to go into service because of problems with upgrading work by other firms. There are also still not enough additional drivers yet trained.

A further factor is that despite all the disruption, ScotRail is still seeing underlying passenger growth. Will it always struggle to cope when there are sudden surges of demand?