ScotRail nationalisation: practical proposition or political ploy?

Mounting public discontent with poor Abellio ScotRail performance has led to calls for the passenger franchise to be prematurely terminated and replaced with a state run body.

Scottish Transport Minister, Hamza Yousaf, told last week’s BBC Sunday Politics programme: “Let’s be clear, ScotRail’s performance has been not good enough. I have told them in no uncertain terms that their performance must improve. If it doesn’t improve there are some very serious consequences.”

The ten year ScotRail franchise was awarded in April 2015 to Abellio, a subsidiary of the Dutch state railway Nederlande Spoorwegen, though it can be reviewed after five years and rescinded after seven should the tough target conditions in the franchise specification are not  met.

As reported elsewhere, ScotRail  has repeatedly failed to meet performance targets over several consecutive periods and the latest figures show little improvement. The PPM (public performance measure) for train punctuality and reliability was 87.0% in the last four week period (P8 from 16 October to 12 November) while the MAA (moving annual average) was 89.8% (the threshold figure for triggering Transport Scotland intervention is 90.3%).

However, Network Rail analysis of the delays (of greater than three minutes) shows that NR was responsible for 54% during P8 (the MAA figure was the same), whereas ScotRail accounted for 37% of train delays in P8 (with a 38% MAA). In other words, the train operator was only responsible for around one delay in every three.

So the main culprit for late running trains turns out to be state-owned Network Rail. Some of the delays can be attributed to electrification of the Central Belt but these are likely to be resolved well before the end of the existing franchise.

ScotRail has to meet some of the most stringent franchise conditions in the UK; its PPM, though below target, is still higher than the national average for England & Wales (85.1%, or 87.9% MMA) for the same period.

The ScotRail PPM target is 91.3% (for train arrivals under five minutes). Delays would have to fall to 84.3% for three consecutive months for the Scottish government to initiate the five year break and cancel the contract.

ScotRail is a long way from that point.

When the railways were privatised in the 1990s a bizarre situation arose: the 1993 Railways Act (S.25) forbade BR or any other domestic public sector operator from becoming a franchised passenger operator, but it did not prevent foreign ones. This might have posed problems but the Scottish government has passed legislation to get round this.

“The Scotland Act 2016 sets out new powers for the Scottish Government. In respect of rail franchising, it amends the Railways Act 1993 to enable the Scottish Ministers to let Scottish rail franchises to public sector bodies. The Scottish Government has made a commitment to ensuring that a public sector body will be in a position to bid for future rail franchises, ” a Transport Scotland spokesperson informed 21CR.

ScotRail nationalisation is an SNP election manifesto commitment. The pledge is for a public sector bid to be in place when the existing franchise expires in 2025.  If the franchise is prematurely terminated in 2020 it would still take another two years before a new operator could take over.

Yousaf has conceded (statement to Scottish Parliament , 23 November) that any public sector contender would have to compete with private sector companies for the new franchise. But as a public body already predisposed to the former option it is difficult to see how Transport Scotland could remain impartial in the refranchising process.

How would a state run ScotRail franchise differ from the current set up? It would still have to lease trains from privately-owned rolling stock companies, so no savings can be expected from that quarter. It would not include all Scottish rail services either – Virgin Trains West Coast, Virgin Trains East Coast, First TransPennine Express and Arriva Cross Country would continue to operate north of the border, as at present. And would the revenue risk rest with a state-owned TOC or would it operate on a concession basis like London Overground and Merseyrail?

Details on all these points are non existent or hard to come by.

When BR was in existence it was public whipping boy number one – the body everyone loved to hate. Now that it has gone it is viewed nostalgically – and very differently – through rose-tinted spectacles. For a future Scottish government a state run ScotRail could well turn out to be a poisoned chalice – it would be held responsible for all its shortcomings as it would no longer be possible to pass the buck and blame private operators for everything that goes wrong.

It might then want to relieved of this burden and return the franchise back to the private sector . . . in which case we would be back to square one again!


Redevelopment work at Glasgow Queen Street disrupted services earlier in the year.
Redevelopment work at Glasgow Queen Street disrupted services earlier in the year.





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