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Railwatch 070 - December 1996

Oh what a tangled web!

By David Hansen

The first new railway station in Scotland after rail privatisation is now being built. Yet in the October Railwatch we reported the Dalgety Bay project in serious trouble.

How did this good news happen? With a lot of effort from those involved.

The total estimated cost of the station rose from £500,000 two years ago to £1.8 million in June 1996. Estimates tend to rise and part of this increase was for better facilities, especially a ramped footbridge. However, some of the increase was due to the inflationary process of rail privatisation.

The increased cost caused Fife Council - which is paying for the station with borrowing consent from the Scottish Office - to suggest cancelling the station. This would have caused the loss of a £100,000 contribution from the private sector.

The Rail Users' Consultative Committee for Scotland stepped in, asking the Scottish Office to help resolve the problem. The Scottish Office did not seem keen to see headlines like "Rail privatisation drives away private investment in the railways". As a result it granted increased borrowing consent to allow the station to be built.

For a few weeks the station seemed secure, but then problem two reared its head. In days of old, when the Bathgate service was started, one railway built the stations and operated the trains.

However, this is too simple a concept for the "new railway". Although one part of the railway (Railtrack) was able to build the station, another part (ScotRail) had to arrange to stop its trains. ScotRail could not decide to stop its trains without funding from a quango (OPRAF). OPRAF decided early in October not to fund a service, partly because the franchise for ScotRail was at the tender stage. It seems strange that an improved service for passengers could be torpedoed by a mere tender process.

This was not the improvement politicians promised passengers. It seemed that, in the looking glass world of the "new railway", tender procedures were more important than improvements for passengers.

Things were now very tense. If work did not start on Tuesday 8 October the private sector contribution would be lost. Fife Council stationed a road digger at the station car park that morning and waited.

Presumably after some interesting discussions between the Scottish Office and OPRAF, the Scottish Office provided funding to stop trains. Fife started work in the afternoon and, barring any more problems, the station will be built with the aid of the private sector contribution.

RDS Scotland was delighted to be able to send out a congratulatory press release.

What lessons can be gained from this near fiasco? It is no longer possible for a Chris Green to decide (with the local authority) to build a station and stop trains there, as Mr Green did with the Bathgate line.

It also seems that extreme determination is now needed. The amount of aggravation Fife Council had to put up with over this station must be a discouragement to other councils thinking of improving rail facilities.

Money is easily available in very large quantities from the Scottish Office for building roads. I anticipate councils taking the easy option - building roads - rather than improving rail services. Why should they have to struggle through a morass just to open one small station? Despite the good news on the station, there is still no sign of additional trains to improve train frequency.

The Scottish Office has given borrowing consent for the trains to Fife Council. However, OPRAF refuses to allow ScotRail to order trains, as this would affect the bidding process.

The root cause of this mess is the method chosen for rail privatisation. The players, none completely blameless, are attempting to operate in a system set up by the Government which experts said would cause problems. One small station has shown how large the problems are.

RDS can take some credit for lobbying on this station. However, the majority of the credit should go to RUCC Scotland for behind-scenes work at the Scottish Office.

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