Smith Commission : Railway powers


The Smith Commission has recommended that the Scottish government should have the power to “allow public sector operators to bid for rail franchises funded and specified by Scottish Ministers”. That means that the Scottish government can bid to take the railways back into public ownership. In other words, renationalisation.

If that power is indeed delivered, we might have to wait a while for it to be used. In October 2014, the Scottish government controversially awarded the ScotRail services to Dutch rail operator Abellio (1). The franchise, worth up to PS6bn, will run for 10 years with a provision for the Scottish government to cancel it at the halfway point only if Abellio fails to meet its obligations. Abellio, formerly known as Ned Railways (genuinely), is a subsidiary of the Dutch national rail company Nederlandse Spoorwege.

The decision to keep the railways in private hands for up to another 10 years was far from unanimously welcomed. While the Scottish government claimed its hands were tied, the rail union RMT condemned the move and called for a delay in the decision pending the outcome of the Smith Commission.

What do people think?

Across Scotland and the rest of the UK, public opinion in support of rail nationalisation is high, with polls showing around 66 per cent support (2). Privatisation has been seen as unpopular and unpractical, with costs going up and the quality of service reducing.

Now that Smith’s verdict is in, the Scottish government may soon have the power to bring the railways under national ownership. One can expect calls for renationalisation to heighten once again the next time the franchise comes up for renewal.

What have people said?

“Full responsibility for rail transport would enable public sector bids and non-for-profit models, more integrated railway services and services designed to meet local needs.” Scottish Government

“Scotland could have taken control of its own railways. Instead they have opted to go Dutch, meaning that profits will be sucked out of the system to underpin investment and fares in Holland.” Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT union,

“There’s huge public appetite for bringing rail back into public hands, and I think it’s realistic to start preparing for a public sector bid in 2020” Patrick Harvie, co-convener Scottish Green Party

Picture courtesy of Gideon Chilton