On 2nd April past, St Mirren were playing Motherwell away. I wanted to go for a pint with my brother and some other pals before the game, so Andrea dropped me off at Cumbernauld Railway station for me to get a train. The creation of a direct service between Cumbernauld and Motherwell was a grand gesture some years back so that local residents would feel part of North Lanarkshire Council, who have their headquarters in the latter town. But nobody actually uses this service.
I was conscious that only one other person got on the train with me and no more than two or three got on or off at any station en route. On the way back, seven people initially got on but this was rather undermined by three of them being off duty Scotrail employees. By the time the train reached Cumbernauld only me, the driver and the guard were being carried.
This is entirely normal usage on this service. You could replace it entirely not with a bus but with one or, at "peak" times, possibly two taxis.
So, given the nationwide shortage of train drivers has this been done? Well, no. There is to this day an hourly service from 0617 to 2017.
Now this first train from Cumbernauld to Motherwell is earlier than any train from Stirling to Glasgow and on return, although still earlier, only by a mere half hour before that on which you could make a last return to Stirling.
If we have a shortage of train drivers this is a ludicrous deployment of resources and by far and no means an isolated example. But it is in keeping with the general shambles that has been the nationalisation of Scotrail.
It was announced in December 2019 that Abelio were to lose the Scotrail franchise in March 2022. It takes nine to twelve months to train a train driver, months before that to recruit, so it was surely have been patently obvious that Abelio had no incentive at all to do that from at least January 2021 onwards? In March 2021 it was announced that Scotrail was to be taken into direct public ownership, so, at that point at the latest, checking where we were on this became the specific reponsibility of the Scottish Government. Did anybody do that? (Very) apparently not. So when the railways passed in to the hands of the Scottish Government on 1st April 2022 (that was the date, really), only then did it become clear that, although we had enough trains, we did not have enough drivers. And this is not a computer game. Having realised your error, you can't go back to an earlier saved version and start again. So we are stuck with this situation for, it appears, at least a year.
Now there are three things I want to conclude from this. The first, in some ways, is not a directly political one. The senior management of Scotrail are one and the same from those in place before nationalisation. Somebody there must surely have had responsibilty for recruitment and training and been aware, that in the field of train drivers at least, no such activity was being undertaken? Yet what? Did they decide for some bizarre reason to keep their in counsel on what was going on? Did they perhaps tell somebody higher up who failed to act and then forget all about it when the latter did so? It would be inconceivable that you turn up a Tesco to be told you couldn't actually buy anything because they didn't have enough check out operators. Why is that apparently acceptable on the Railways? Why, frankly, has nobody been sacked?
And then Scotrail, before and after nationalisation, was hardly operating in an impenetrable fog. Their activities, or lack of them, was being monitored by the Scottish Civil Service. What, if anything, were they doing? I was involved in the sale of a relatively small business some years back. Fifty or so employees. As part of a standard disclosure, pre contracting, the prospective purchasers solicitors sent us a questionnaire. How many staff did we have? What were they all paid? Who were the "key" staff? What age were they? Were we confident they would stay? What turnover of staff did the business have? How easy did they find it to recruit? Lots of others.
Surely the Scottish Government went through a similar process and, crucially, surely one of their questions would have been, "Are you satisfied you/we will have enough staff to deliver the current service post nationalisation and, if not, what are you doing to address that?" Surely? I have written before here about how the failures in the day to day governance of Scotland go well beyond the current SNP/Green Government. We have failures at an institutional level across the board. In health; education; justice and, not now but now much more so still, in transport. You could parachute in a political administration of an entirely different political complexion and stuff it with a multi-talented team of ministers and yet it would still take them years to sort this out.
Yet the SNP are not innocent in this. They have after all been in power for fifteen years. It is easy just to say this is because they have no real interest in running the devolved administration as they have another priority but while this is, of course, a partial explanation, it is not the whole picture. They are just hopeless at recruiting themselves. They do of course have competent ministers. I might disagree with their politics but I would concede Kate Forbes, John Swinney, Keith Brown, Sturgeon herself at least know what they are doing. But they are choosing the rest of the Government from far too shallow a pool within their Parliamentary group. If you look back at the Scottish Labour Party in my lifetime, pretty much all of the major players: John Smith; Gordon Brown; Robin Cook; John Reid; Douglas Alexander etc, , were "assisted" by the leadership, directly or through proxies, to find a seat. The Tories do the same down south and, in earlier times, up here. George Younger had little connection to Ayr before he became its MP, nor Michael Forsyth to Stirling.
Yet the SNP simply do not do that. I can think of many Nats of my generation working in or around the backrooms, I won't embarrass them by naming them, who would make excellent MSPs and, in time, Ministers. Journalist pals assure me that among Sturgeon's horde of spin doctors, they can identify other, younger, people of undoubted talent, whatever their politics. None of them seem to have been encouraged, let alone assisted, to step up. While the leadership also sat back and watched Andrew Wilson, Joan McAlpine and (albeit temporarily) Mike Russell being effectively deselected in favour of complete numpties. Never mind that a fair bit of talent, not just Joanna Cherry, are forced to sit about at Westminster kicking their heels by Party rules that make "coming home" (their mentality not mine) almost impossible.
And yet when it comes to the 2021 intake? Almost all have been plucked from local obscurity and delivered into even greater national obscurity. If you look around them, far from spotting a potential future Party Leader, you would struggle to spot a future junior Minister.
And all this comes at a price. Useless bureaucrats and quangocrats sometimes need firm management by Ministers. But that requires the Minister themself to have the ability and intellectual confidence to apply that firm management. It is surely the comprehensive lack of that at transport which has led to the perfect storm surrounding rail nationalisation. Jenny Gilruth appears to have awaited this morning's armageddon not only by taking the weekend off herself but also by failing to insist that any others did not.do likewise. When ASLEF said they were happy to talk, anytime,anywhere, they did not qualify that with Monday to Friday, nine till five; four thirty on Fridays.
Are the rail unions exploiting previous management incompetence? Of course they are. But what are the Scottish Government doing to remedy that? Here is some unsolicited advice. Settle with the nurses. The Scottish Government announced last year that they would negotiate directly with the Nurses rather than rely on the pay review body. As with so much else with this Government, a good headline for a day. Except that, in common with their general level of competence, as of 22nd April, these negotiations hadn't even started although the pay increase should have been in place by 30th April past. But if you get the nurses to settle for X% you could turn the tables on ASLEF by suggesting "Do you really think you deserve more than the nurses?" And if they do, perhaps apply a bit more robust management. Starting with insisting the times of first and last trains within and between cities are not negotiable, even if that does mean temporarily suspending some quiet backwater services altogether.
And here is some further unsolicited advice for the SNP. If I wanted to advocate an independent Scotland, surely a good start would be to recruit people capable of competently managing a devolved one? There is no reason the two need be self contradictory.