I’m writing this from Sicily. Don’t fret – I’m stuck inside because it’s raining and last night’s electrical storms had me thinking the sky was going to fall in.
After a day in Naples eating my body weight in margherita pizza, I took the train down the west coast of Italy to the toe of the boot. Barely losing sight of the Mediterranean Sea, it was a beautiful, peaceful journey. As the train arrived in Villa San Giovanni, the lights went off for a moment or two as the train was split. The first two carriages, including my own, then reversed up the track and into the hull of a ferry. Thirty minutes later it rolled off into the historic Sicilian town of Messina. The first touch of the ball.
Whilst it’s tempting to write this column just as a picture postcard, there is a point to the whole thing. That 500-kilometre, five-hour journey which included a ferry crossing, a seat and a little snack pack of peach juice and breadsticks, cost just 14 euros. That’s cheaper than a single from Edinburgh to Glasgow – a journey less than one tenth of the distance.
It brought in to sharp focus something I’ve long known: Scotland’s rail system is a disgrace. To add insult to injury, ScotRail announced another above-inflation fare rise last week. That means paying even more for our over-crowded, skip-stopping, late trains.
Transport Scotland has just produced a report on Scotland’s busiest train routes. It makes for grim reading. The top ten services are regularly over their standing capacity, the worst offender being Edinburgh-Perth route. Those who take it regularly sigh every time they see the two-carriage train arrive at the platform.
What’s harder to explain is the consistently poor service those travelling in from North Berwick to the Capital experience. The 07.55 has four carriages and therefore 282 seats. Transport Scotland report that it regularly carries 518 passengers into town.That’s not far off a 50 per cent chance of a seat. Beyond the discomfort of standing, it’s important to note that the “planned loading” for the train is 434. That means the train is carrying 80 people more than it is safe to do so. £6.70 that journey costs. I paid the same to travel the 224 kilometres from Messina to Palermo.
Trenitalia – the country’s main rail operator is wholly owned by the government and, therefore, its people. It’s run in their interests, not shareholders. It’s a shining example of what state ownership could do to transform Scotland and the UK’s rail network.
Look across Europe and you can see state-owned rail operators providing vastly better train services and cheaper train travel than we experience here in Scotland. That’s why my party has such a long-standing commitment to renationalise the railways, and we don’t need Brexit to achieve it. For me it’s both ideological and evidenced by the facts.
The infrastructure that joins up our towns and cities is a key function of keeping our country moving. A decent reliable service is also the route to getting people out of their cars and on to public transport: a necessity to improve air quality and fight climate change. Of course it should be in state hands. It’s as critical as hospitals are to the health service; or schools to our kids’ education. But it also works. Reinvesting profits from the rail service into the train stock is just common sense. In such a scenario, people might begrudge paying £25 to travel to Glasgow a little less.
Just look at the unrivalled success of Lothian Buses, which is owned by local authorities. If only we had a train service as good as our bus service.
It’s time to put rail passengers first, not shareholders.
Scottish Government must put more cash into care
This paper revealed beyond all doubt yesterday that health and social care in this city is at crisis point. A £7.7million projected overspend is a worrying number for those charged with counting the council’s coffers. But it’s far worse for the vulnerable people reliant on a service that is already creaking at the seams.
That’s what we’re talking about here: not beds, units or lines in a spreadsheet to be shuffled around, but people. Often very sick or very disabled people. Sometimes both.
I have numerous constituents at the moment who live under the constant threat of having their care package ‘reviewed’ – that almost always means cut.
In reality, we’re talking about hours and visits here. In other words, cuts to care packages mean care workers either come to the homes of the people they are caring for less often, or come for less time on those visits. What they can do for the people they are caring for is therefore reduced.
When they once might be able to get them washed, dressed and out of the house to the shops, they now arrive with food to be microwaved. It’s cleaning the house or washing the clothes, but probably not both, and there’s no time to chat. It’s increasing social isolation and keeping already vulnerable and weak people in that exact same state. It’s dehumanising, despite the very best efforts of the dedicated workers who are often on very low pay and insecure contracts.
I haven’t even touched on the lives of those people waiting for a care package to start. It’s a shocking state of affairs, and the simple truth is that while money alone won’t fix everything, it simply won’t get any better without a serious cash injection from the Scottish Government.
Food for thought as Venchie volunteers make sure kids eat in the holidays
Parents across the city are breathing a huge sigh of relief now the schools are back. The final two weeks are always torture as the list of fun things to do runs out at almost exactly the same time as the patience to do them.
I was always super keen as a kid to get back to school. I was fortunate enough to actually like school and learning, but more importantly I missed my pals. Spare a thought, though, for all the children across the city who are glad to get back to school for a decent feed.
This is perhaps the first summer where there has been a real focus on holiday hunger. Ten years on from the financial crash, austerity is biting harder than ever. Benefits have been slashed, wages frozen and food costs are rising, meaning more and more children in our city our just hungry.
Thank goodness though for the work of organisations like the Venchie in Craigmillar. I visited them at the start of the summer and was in awe of the services on offer. A proper hot lunch of mince and tatties was being freshly prepared for well over 50 kids. Another 30 or 40 packed lunches were made up for kids to collect at the door.
The people who run organisations like the Venchie are miraculous individuals, constantly going above and beyond. All they want to do is look after their community and so often the system makes their jobs harder. At the end of summer holidays it’s time for them to take a well-deserved break.