Humza Yousaf clashes with Abellio over public ownership

Transport Minister Humza Yousaf. Photograph: John Devlin
Transport Minister Humza Yousaf. Photograph: John Devlin
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Under-fire transport minister Humza Yousaf is to make a statement to MSPs about the situation on Scotland’s railways as he clashed with current operator Abellio over the prospect of returning service to public ownership.

The Dutch firm yesterday appeared to play down the prospect of such a move transforming the service, insisting the Scottish Government will still be responsible for issues such as prices and overcrowding.

The operator called for critics to focus on “customers’ interests and not their own”. Opposition politicians stepped up the pressure on Mr Yousaf with claims that passengers have lost confidence in his ability to address concerns over punctuality and cancellations on the railways.

READ MORE: Public sector bid for next ScotRail franchise to take shape this week

Anger at the performance on Scotland’s railways peaked last week when a rush-hour breakdown between Edinburgh’s Haymarket and Waverley stations delayed thousands of commuters by hitting services across the country.

Mr Yousaf has said he wants to work with unions and other political

parties to put together a public sector bid to run the railways, which could be ready in time for 2020 when a clause in the contract with Abellio would allow it to be broken.

He said yesterday: “I will be proposing to make a statement to parliament this week so all parties can discuss how we improve our rail services.

READ MORE: Pressure grows on Humza Yousaf as train punctuality slumps

“I also reiterate my offer to the rail unions, opposition politicians, and public sector organisations to meet me to discuss the possible shape of a public sector franchise bid.”

ScotRail was forced to produce a performance improvement plan in September, at the request of Transport Scotland, after punctuality and reliability fell below standard.

Mr Yousaf added: “As I have made clear, our focus is firmly on driving up standards for passengers and ScotRail bosses have been left in no doubt about the need for improvements, and the seriousness of my intent.”

But the minister’s proposal to bring services effectively back into public ownership met with a terse response from operator Abellio last night.

Charlotte Twyning, director of policy, strategy and communications, said the company had “no problem” competing with public bids.

But she added: “It should be recognised that half of the rail industry is already nationalised in the form of Network Rail and any operator that runs the ScotRail franchise – public or private – does so to a tightly specified Scottish Government contract, which means that ministers set fares and essentially determine how many seats are available and therefore how much overcrowding exists across the network.”

And she added: “Rail passengers are better served by organisations and individuals collaborating in customers’ interests and not their own.”

Labour and the Conservatives say travellers want to see improvements now.

Labour transport spokesman Neil Bibby said: “The transport minister’s public statements under pressure have managed to start a war of words with both the rail unions and now Abellio.

“As Abellio has said, ministers ‘set fares and essentially determine how many seats are available and therefore how much overcrowding exists”.

Conservative finance spokesman Murdo Fraser said the public ownership proposals had been drawn up to “deflect attention” from his handling of the ScotRail contract.

Transport minister Humza Yousaf says he wants to discuss a public sector franchise bid