Borders Railway trains to be improved, promises transport minister

A Borders Railway train at Newtongrange.
A Borders Railway train at Newtongrange.

Plans are being drawn up to ensure all Borders Railway carriages are air-conditioned and accessible to disabled people, passengers have been assured.

The experience of users of the line, opened two years ago, was highlighted last week during a series of questions put to the Scottish Parliament by new South Scotland Conservative list MSP Michelle Ballantyne.

She wanted to know what action the Scottish Government had taken to deal with the effect of hot weather on passengers and how it is proposing to better accommodate disabled people, the elderly and pregnant women.

In his responses, Scottish transport minister Humza Yousaf said the class 158 diesel two-carriage trains primarily operated on the line are “undergoing a major enhancement programme worth around £14m to deliver improvements to passenger facilities”.

“Further work is planned over the coming months which will also improve the air-conditioning equipment on the fleet to help regulate the on-train environment,” said Mr Yousaf.

“In addition, Abellio ScotRail and train owner Porterbrook agreed to replace all radiators. This work has now been completed and, since then, no failures caused by overheating during hot weather have been noted.”

Regarding accessibility, Mr Yousaf told Mrs Ballantyne: “Abellio is obliged to meet all the regulations and legal requirements as operator of the ScotRail franchise.

“The existing ScotRail fleet is currently undergoing a significant upgrade programme to meet both the requirements of the franchise agreement with Scottish ministers and the persons with reduced mobility-technical specification for interoperability regulations for rolling stock, which has a deadline of January 1, 2020.

“When this work is completed, all trains in the fleet will have universal accessible toilets installed ahead of the 2020 deadline, as well as spaces for two wheelchairs adjacent to companion seating.”

Mr Yousaf said there would also be call-for-aid buttons, boarding ramps, around 10% of seating marked for priority users, tactile door-opening buttons, on-train announcements and passenger information screens.

He said ScotRail’s passenger assist service, currently needing to be booked four hours in advance, would have that notice period reduced to three hours later this year, to two hours by 2019 and to one hour by 2021.

Asked by Mrs Ballantyne how many weather-related cancellations and delays had hit the Borders Railway, Mr Yousaf told her: “Transport Scotland does not hold this information.”

However, he said the franchise agreement required data on the numbers of cancellations to be “reported down to a level of service group” by the operator and set against benchmarks laid out in the franchise.

“In terms of overall performance, officials from Transport Scotland regularly meet with ScotRail to ensure the effects of seasonal weather fluctuations are acknowledged in how the operator organises its services,” said Mr Yousaf.