Only days after the latest report card revealed that ScotRail had failed to reach the required standards in 26 areas out of 34 – thus clocking up £3m in fines – Mr Yousaf was in Parliament responding to that fact that hundreds of seats a day on the main Edinburgh to Glasgow line have had to be cut due to trains losing carriages in preparation for long-awaited upgrades.
In a frankly bizarre example of poor planning on ScotRail’s part, the operator either failed to notice or prepare for the fact that the delayed arrival of a new fleet of electric trains would leave them short, since the lease on four current models had already expired.
As a consequence, some services are having to run with fewer carriages, including on some peak time trains. Concerned about the prospect of further overcrowding on what is already the busiest service in the land, bosses have slashed peak fares on the secondary route between the two cities by half in a bid to persuade some commuters to switch. How many will be tempted to add an extra 20 minutes each way to their already tiresome journey by travelling via Bathgate and Airdrie remains to be seen.
Scotrail has come out with the usual platitudes to customers, advising them to plan their journey in advance and apologising for “any inconvenience caused”. Mr Yousaf also apologised to passengers, saying that safety was his number one priority, and Scotrail was doing its best to address the shortage.
The company, which is run by Dutch operator Abellio, should get credit for managing to extend some leases, meaning the impact on services has not been as bad as first feared – so far.
But it’s hard to imagine many frustrated commuters taking comfort from this, especially as the Minister has been unable to spell out when services will return to normal, saying only that the new fleet of high-speed trains would start to operate in May.
The matter is further complicated by the fact that drivers on the new trains, which are manufactured by Japanese giant Hitachi, have raised safety fears over the windscreens.
To say the passengers on the Edinburgh to Glasgow line are long-suffering is an understatement. Most probably welcome the plan to electrify the line, which will eventually cut the journey time by 10 minutes. A major and much-needed upgrade of Queen Street Station in Glasgow is also part of the wider improvement programme.
But the £800m electrification scheme has been beset by problems from the outset, and is already running a year late. The station upgrade, meanwhile, is two years behind schedule. Last month a landslide in West Lothian closed the line for two days, while in November the First Minister was forced to apologise after a train broke down between Haymarket and Waverley Stations.
The importance of this line to Scottish business cannot be underestimated, and passengers, who pay up to £25 a day for a return ticket, were already running out of patience after suffering a litany of delays to the already disruptive upgrade programme.
It is hard to understand why ScotRail would allow another unnecessary shambles to undermine its flagship service, at a time when public confidence in the entire rail system is so low.
The immediate priority is for the company, or indeed Mr Yousaf, to be straight with customers about when services will return to full capacity. After that, Mr Yousaf must lay down the law to ScotRail and its partners over the importance of ensuring the remainder of the upgrade runs on schedule. Time, after all, is running out for both the Minister and the operator to prove they are up to the job.