TRANSPORT minister Keith Brown today confirmed The Scotsman’s revelation last night that ScotRail will be run from next April by Dutch firm Abellio.
The offshoot of Dutch national railways promised more than 100 extra trains over the ten-year franchise, which it won from Aberdeen-based operator FirstGroup.
Abellio also announced it would move its UK headquarters to Scotland next year, from where it will run its three English train franchises, and bus operations in London and the south east.
Its plans for ScotRail include 27 refurbished diesel “High Speed Trains” (HSTs), built in the 1970s, to improve passenger comfort on much-criticised long-distance services between Edinburgh/Glasgow and Aberdeen and Inverness.
Scotland on Sunday has revealed that even ScotRail staff from the main train drivers union Aslef chose to travel on such trains run by East Coast to a conference in Inverness rather than ScotRail’s more cramped carriages. East Coast also use the HSTs to Aberdeen. The company will also order 80 brand new trains, including for the main Edinburgh-Glasgow line when it is electrified in two years’ time. The total number of carriages in the ScotRail fleet will increase by nearly one quarter.
Other new measures include cut-price fares for job seekers, lower inter-city fares from £5, and more cycle hire at stations.
“Scenic” trains will run on routes popular with tourists, such as Glasgow to Oban and Mallaig, but fans of the observation cars which ran in the past will be disappointed because the plans extend only as far as upgrading existing trains on the route, which campaigners have long criticised as not fit for purpose.
Mr Brown hailed the deal as a “world-leading contract for staff and passengers.”
He said he had no option but to award the franchise, despite Labour and union calls for the process to be halted pending new devolved powers from Westminster, which could include for the contract to be run by the public sector.
The minister said he had sought such powers for the last three years, but since Scotland did not yet have them, to stop the franchise process at the final stage would cause “chaos and uncertainty on the rails”.
Today’s announcement comes as a second blow to First, which has also lost the Caledonian Sleeper franchise - being split off ScotRail - as Scotland on Sunday revealed this summer.
Tim O’Toole, FirstGroup’s chief executive, said:
“We are very proud of our success in operating First ScotRail and our team were recognised last week, once again, as Rail Operator of the Year. We have kept our promises and more for ten years, delivering record levels of service including during this extraordinary summer in Scotland with the Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup. Our bid would have delivered even greater levels of service and growth, and we are disappointed we will not have the opportunity to implement the credible plans we submitted, building on our record of improvement across every measurable score, for the benefit of ScotRail’s passengers and employees.
“We shall continue to operate First ScotRail until the new franchise commences on 1 April 2015. Until that time we will deliver further enhancements to trains and stations including further free Wi-Fi and continue important work to enable the extension of smart ticketing across the whole country and the opening of the Borders Railway next year.”
Responding to the Scottish Government’s decision to award the ScotRail franchise to Abellio, David Sidebottom, Passenger Focus director, said:
“We welcome the ambitious plans for the new ScotRail franchise. We look forward to working with Abellio to help them deliver the passenger benefits promised.
“While we await more details, some important commitments are made. In our submission and discussions about the franchise we identified the top passenger priorities as punctuality, frequency, being able to get a seat, passenger information during disruption and value for money. So, we particularly welcome the intention to introduce high-speed intercity diesel trains, with over a third more seats, providing enhanced staffed information desks at stations, new trains to provide additional capacity and an increase in services and the price promise to be sold the cheapest ticket. Provision of better facilities at stations, personalised travel information and scenic railway services on Scotland’s railway are to be welcome. It is clear that all the regions of Scotland will see tangible benefits.
“ScotRail has been a strong performer in our National Rail Passenger Survey reaching 90% overall satisfaction. We will be working with Abellio to maintain and improve those results and also look closely at the franchise details to assess how the new plans will deliver improved quality of service, drive up passenger satisfaction and build trust.”