Railways should be run in the public interest

“The government believes, fundamentally, we have got to have an efficient public rail network that meets the needs of individuals within Scotland, that acts in the public interest, that delivers the services that members of the public are looking for.” So said the Deputy First Minister in answer to my questions yesterday, while he was standing in for the First Minister at FMQs.

I welcome the sentiment of course. However it is clear that we are some distance from realising the “efficient public rail network,” to which Mr Swinney refers. In the run up to Christmas, ScotRail’s performance was so consistently poor that the Transport Secretary finally issued them with an official ‘remedial notice’ forcing the company to bring forward an improvement plan this month.

In the intervening period, performance has barely improved. Yesterday, Mr Swinney again acknowledged that ScotRail’s performance has been “unacceptable.” I think most regular rail commuters would agree.

Yet the DFM and his colleagues recently voted along with the Tories not to activate the break clause, which can be used next year to effectively remove the contract from operator Abellio, given poor performance.

Scottish Greens support the full public ownership of Scotland’s railways, which would ensure that the rail network is run exclusively in the interest of the people of Scotland. There are still significant hurdles to accomplish this, but that is no reason for inaction in the face of persistent failure by the current operator.

The 2016 Scotland Act, which emerged from the post indyref Smith Commission, did grant the Scottish Parliament the powers to put in place a public sector operator. In the short term, this is the best way to ensure public control of Scotland’s railways. Ministers were initially extremely enthusiastic about introducing a publicly run service, but there are now worrying signs that they have gone cold on the idea.

The Scottish Government cannot give Abellio a free pass to fail. Ruling out the use of the break clause would do just that, and signal their permission to carry on with a substandard service. The Government must instead make preparations now so that if the contract is cancelled it is ready to provide the good quality service that passengers deserve. In the unlikely event that Abellio’s performance dramatically improves then this wouldn’t be wasted effort, as Ministers would be in a good position to launch this public sector bid when the franchise next comes up for renewal.

Calmac, the Scottish Government owned ferry operator has indicated that they would be interested in preparing a bid to run ScotRail. It would make sense for an already established government body to run the franchise and I would urge Ministers to pursue this opportunity with real urgency. 

I recognise that while Abellio’s performance has been wholly unacceptable, many delays and cancellations are actually the responsibility of Network Rail. Network Rail is the UK Government organisation which is responsible for the track, and associated infrastructure such as signals.

Greens support the full transfer of responsibility for Network Rail to Scotland. This would allow rail services in Scotland to operate on a truly joined up basis. It would also ensure that Scottish Ministers have to take greater responsibility, and it would allow parliamentarians to more closely scrutinise the performance of our railways.

The fragmented nature of our railways following the Tory privatisation of the 90’s is a disgrace. The current system requires separate companies who own, paint, and lease rolling stock, a convoluted franchising system, separate companies to transport freight, another to manage the track and a confused and lopsided devolution settlement to top it all off.

I appreciate it is unlikely that the current Tory UK Government will address this mess, but that’s no reason to avoid taking the actions that are within our control, like dumping a failing operator. The Scottish Government can and should challenge the discredited franchise model.  

The Scottish Greens have for many years stood alongside public opinion and the trade unions, including the RMT, in the fight to bring Scotland’s railways into public ownership. I am sure it will not escape the notice of many readers that while Labour have recently taken to carping on about this, they failed to take any action during their 13 years in government.

Railways are a public service. They should be run by the public sector, in the exclusive interest of the public instead of shareholders – or indeed a company owned by the public sector of another country. In the long term there is a critical need to scrap the current, confused system and put in place a simpler, publicly run model.

In the short term, Scottish Ministers should grasp the bull by the horns and prepare a public bid – which could be put in place at the earliest opportunity.