An opportunity missed? The case for renationalising Scotland’s railways

In the past week, the SNP and the Scottish Conservative Party teamed up to voting down a Scottish Labour motion to utilise the break clause in Abellio’s ScotRail contract and re-nationalise the railways. The Scottish Labour motion was defeated by 85 votes to 34.

Despite an argument that, perhaps the SNP may be forgiven for the prevention of such a measure, given the franchise does indeed carry some considerable public support – a 9/10 passenger satisfaction in the twice-yearly National Rail Passenger Survey published in July, this view is short-sighted and ignores the wider issues underpinning the UK railway system.

Simply put, the UK railway system is a strange model of both public and private ownership, meaning it is both fragmented and chaotic. Railway infrastructure is nationalised whilst operation is privatised. Network Rail admitted at least 60% of passenger delays are attributed to themselves. Therefore, blame cannot be solely directed at Abellio ScotRail but at the system, too.

But, the segmentation between public and private and the multiple companies running the railways means that communication is poor which impacts performance through delays and cancellations, as evident through official figures that declare the proportion of trains arriving within five minutes of their scheduled time has fallen again to 88.2 per cent, as opposed to the terms of Abellio ScotRails’ government contract target of 92 per cent. The argument for privatisation is that the increased competition will lead to more competitive ticket prices and a generally improved performance. However, as highlighted in the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) report 2017: “travel by rail is clearly unsuited to this kind of competition – firms can hardly offer competing services at the same time on the same route – and most passengers seeking to take the train to a particular destination simply do not have a choice of which TOC they travel with.”

Consequently, privatisation essentially catalyses franchising, meaning monopolies form and prices rise. The TSSA report also identified the fact that Scotrail is one of the most highly subsidised franchises in the UK – in 2015-16, Abellio Scotrail received £293 million in direct government funding, amounting to nearly 45.6% of its total income.

Meanwhile, profits such as the £10m made by Abellio in its first 9 months, as ScotRail franchise operator that would be reinvested into the system under nationalisation, are instead used by Abellio to subsidise rail fares for their parent company Dutch Railways, and their passengers. This system is not sustainable and is not in the interest of Scottish citizens.

Furthermore, the performance of Abellio Scotrail has inevitably taken a dramatic turn for the worse. A loss of £3.5m has been announced in the operators first full year of service in Scotland. It has begun to request the voluntary redundancy of any willing workers within the administrative, clerical, supervisory and managerial staff across Scotland, leaving workers naturally in fear, regardless of the companies commitment to no compulsory redundancies. The privatisation of the railways is not only damaging the livelihoods of its passengers but now also its own workers.

Author and broadcaster, Simon Jenkins, said: “Every sensible report on Britain’s railway for 20 years has reached this same conclusion. A railway needs one managerial unit, one loyalty, one leader.”

This is the re-nationalisation proposed by Scottish Labour, with a split still between a track company and operators. The SNP had the opportunity to re-nationalise the railways and to lead the way for re-nationalisation of the railways across the U.K, especially given the current railway crisis gripping the north of England. If the SNP were indeed a progressive party as their rhetoric suggests, they would not prevent such a measure.

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