Under the spotlight: What’s wrong with Scotrail?

Nathanael Williams

CommonSpace explains the debate surrounding the way train travel in Scotland is delivered 

DEBATE has raged this month over the performance of Scotland’s railways since a rush-hour breakdown between Edinburgh’s Haymarket and Waverley stations delayed thousands of commuters and hit services at points across the country.

There were also delays to trains travelling to Inverness, Aberdeen and the Borders Railway.

Yesterday [Wednesday 24 November] the transport minister Humza Yousaf said that political parties should work on proposals for a public bid to run the railways.

We breakdown the arguments and players surrounding the controversy over transport in Scotland this week.

Is there really a transport “crisis”?

The Scottish Government objects to the term “crisis” and says that the performance of the train service is better than under the previous Labour and Liberal Democrat administrations.

However, Yousaf said that delays were the inevitable result of the process of investment and large scale infrastructure improvements.   

Works are currently underway in renewing the Glasgow Queen Street tunnel and replacing old trains taken out of service.

Who is Abellio and why are they being blamed?

In April last year, Abellio a private Dutch company, won the right to run trains in Scotland from the Scottish government.

Its contract runs for ten years but the government has a “get out clause” at the halfway point if the company’s service is deemed unsatisfactory.

At the time of the deal, unions and the Labour party reacted negatively pointing out that the public wanted the government to run public services rather than companies.

Abellio has a track record of poor customer service and a history of being fined for poor reliability. 

What is Network Rail?

Defenders of Scotrail have instead laid blame at the door of Network Rail – the publicly owned body responsible for UK wide rail infrastructure management.

Network Rail has been blamed because it is the publicly owned body responsible for dealing with technical faults on tracks, signals and maintenance across the UK.

Both Humza Yousaf and the Scottish Greens have expressed their desire for Network Rail’s functions in Scotland to be devolved to the Scottish Government’s control.

Who owns our trains?

Since British Rail was privatised in 1993, rail services in the UK have been provided by private companies called franchises.

According to the ‘Rebuilding Rail Report’, the cost of running the railways has more than doubled since privatisation.

Campaigners also point to the McNulty report which showed that trains in the UK are around 30 per cent more expensive than in Europe.

Those who oppose companies running railways say that private franchises always fail because train companies would rather have fewer trains than provide more and risk empty carriages. Additionally, they point out that since franchising is short term in nature, companies are unwilling to invest significantly in services which they could lose.  

Should we nationalise the railways?

Everyone from campaigners and businessmen to academics and celebrities have called for a publicly owned rail service.

Research carried out by Corporate Watch, has found that the UK as a whole could save £352m by bringing the railways into public ownership, an equivalent of £13 per household.

But individuals who advocate marketisation such as Iain Docherty, a professor of Public Policy and Governance at the Adam Smith Business School University of Glasgow, point to the fact that half the infrastructure of the railway is already nationalised and overspends by an estimated 30 per cent.

What are politicians saying?

Despite a public option being in the last Labour manifesto, the party has decided to focus instead on the transport minister and push for his resignation because of the recent transport problems.

Scottish Labour in its last public statement did not emphasise what it felt should be done with the timing of a public option or any calls for devolution of Network Rail. 

Supporters of the government point out that when in office Labour and the Lib Dems did not advocate for powers that would have allowed for a public option on Scotrail.

The Scottish Conservatives who oppose public ownership of the railways and trains sad that any public ownership proposals were a way to “deflect attention” from the “poor handling” of the ScotRail contract. For their part, the Scottish Greens are in favour of a public option but want the government to be quicker in making a bid to run Scotland’s trains.

What does this mean for the trains?

As a result discussions on the nature of rail reform are likely to be slow and unconstructive, meaning that Abellio could see very well see out its contract past 2020.

The latest performance data showed that 86 per cent of Scotrail trains were on time or less than five minutes late between 16 October and 12 November of this year. Yousaf himself was quick to emphasise that blame should not be set on the workforce of Scotrail but issued an apology stating that improvements would be made across the service and called for a summit on a public sector rail bid.

Pictures courtesy of Scottish Government and Stephen Archer

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