Abellio ScotRail, the main train operator in Scotland, has laid out a timetable from May 2022 which will see the present pandemic-related train cuts extended for some time into the future. Though this timetable will see a modest increase in daily train services – from 2000 to 2100 – it comes at the expense of many commuters at the northern end of the Central Belt, many of whom will see commuting times to Glasgow and Edinburgh lengthened and some services permanently eliminated.
For many University students, these cuts are likely to be little more than a minor inconvenience, the difference between waiting 15 minutes and 20 minutes for the express train to Glasgow. However, for commuting students, the continuation of the post-pandemic timetable is set to continue the pain that they’ve experienced for over 18 months now.
Simon Hessett, a third-year mature Divinity undergrad, is one such student. He makes the 25 mile, 30 minute journey from his home in Larbert to Edinburgh a couple times a week, in order to attend in-person teaching events on campus.
Simon’s commute has become far less convenient since the pandemic hit, with an all day half-hourly service being replaced with an hourly off-peak service and a half-hourly peak service. This has led Simon to experience significant difficulties with traveling to university, as he explains:
“I recently decided that I’m fed up with cancelled trains knocking out a seminar, so now I just pay extra and come in on the first train after I drop my kids off at school in the morning. I drop them at school, go to the station, and get the train around 9:20. And it doesn’t matter whether I have a seminar at 10 or 2, you know, I’ve got to get that 9:20 train.”
If Simon wants to catch a train during the peak – where the higher train frequency protects him from the consequences of a train cancellation – he has to pay more. Even with a railcard, a peak hour trip for Simon’s journey costs over £2 more than the off-peak trip, a quantity which seems small at first but can become meaningfully expensive over time, especially for commuting students who struggle financially.
Simon’s train line, the Edinburgh to Dunblane line, is one of a lucky few set to see train frequency returned to their pre-pandemic levels from May, with trains set to return to a half-hourly frequency all day.
However, at the same time, Simon is set to be a victim of perhaps the most impactful change to Scotland’s train service set to occur from May: the elimination of train service from Cumbernauld to Edinburgh. Though the train line Simon relies on will still run to Edinburgh, the cuts will still inconvenience him badly, as he explains:
“I’m more worried about what they’re going to do with the Edinburgh service. Right now, my train doesn’t stop during peak times at Linlithgow or Polmont, so it makes the journey quite fast. Of course, because you’re not picking up and dropping off at Linlithgow or Polmont, the trains aren’t as busy as they could be.
“From [the May 2022 timetable], they’re proposing that my train will stop at Linlithgow and Polmont. They are bringing back the half hour frequency, which will help, but unless they are going to lengthen the trains, I foresee a disaster.”
ScotRail’s planned service changes are set to add between 10 and 15 minutes onto Simon’s commute, and that is before you factor in delays to train service, a constant specter for Central Belt commuters.
Even before Covid hit, being a commuting student could be a difficult and taxing endeavour. Simon points out, in particular, how commuting can easily consume valuable time, saying:
“You do have to allow two hours out of your day that are quite non-productive. You can go with good intentions of reading, but it depends on how quiet the train is for me, because I’m not good at reading and taking things in when there’s noise around me. I tend to prefer to not work on the train, I’ll work late at night instead”.
Further, Simon explains how commuting can sometimes impose difficult time pressures:
“It means, you know, socializing with family is a little bit difficult. I’ve got two kids, and they need me to do stuff, and get them around. It can be a little bit of a stretch, if my son is going to football, or gymnastics, and they need a lift or whatever, it relies on me being home by a certain time. It’s a real inconvenience in my life, sometimes, as well, if there’s a cancelled train – that wrecks everything.”
Simon closed with an interesting point, wondering if the planned nationalisation of ScotRail from March 2022 onwards would lead to a better timetable. University student Nathan Ford, who commutes from Greater Glasgow to Edinburgh, agreed with the sentiment, saying:
“Hopefully, with the nationalisation of Scotrail next year, these cuts can be reversed and train lines can be expanded.”
Though the jury is out on how nationalisation will impact ScotRail in the long term, it is not likely to save the railway network from the May timetable. MSP Graeme Day, Minister for Transport, confirmed as such in a September debate in the Scottish Parliament, responding to a criticism of the service retraction from a fellow member by saying:
“It is frankly baffling that a member of Parliament can call for a never-ending increase in services with no consideration for the cost.”
However, there is a possible light at the end of the tunnel. In the same debate, Day further elaborated:
“As more people return to using rail, further services that there is demand for will be introduced.”
Commuting long distances to university will likely never be easy. However, if what is said is true, and railway services become more frequent as ridership increases, life might just become a lot easier for commuting students – or, at least, as easy as it can be.
Image via Geograph