Alastair Dalton: Shaking up railways won't make them better

Rail nationalisation keeps being bandied about as a popular policy among voters, but this appears to be more about dissatisfaction with the current system than any benefits a return to state hands would offer.

Scottish Labour transport spokesman Neil Bibby campaigning for rail nationalisation at Glasgow Central. Picture: John Devlin

Labour has adopted the policy - after reneging on it when last in power at Westminster - which has become a mantra for the party on both sides of the Border.

Its campaign against ScotRail’s poor performance last autumn was underpinned by the goal of returning the railways to public ownership.

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However, there appear to be multiple snags to the proposition, not least the apparently faded collective memory of how bad things were under British Rail.

Scotland was where the last trains ran under BR, but that’s still 20 years ago, so anyone under 30 - or perhaps older - is likely to have only hazy recollections.

Among BR’s major problems was having to depend on the vagaries of funding from the government.

One of its responses to that, when faced with a surge in demand such as that fuelled by the Aberdeen oil boom, was to simply jack up the fares rather than build more trains. That led to a distorted fares structure whose anomalies ScotRail only finally ironed out a few years ago.

Calls for nationalisation also overlook the fact that half of the system is already directly controlled by ministers, and they closely oversee much of the rest.

Network Rail, which runs tracks, signals, bridges and major stations, is now an arm of the UK Government.

Train operators like Abellio, which runs ScotRail, sign highly-detailed franchise agreements with government departments such as Transport Scotland, which run to hundreds of pages and specify what they can do in minute detail. Some contracts - like Caledonian Sleeper’s - also run until 2030.

Regulation and safety are also in the hands of government bodies. That pretty much just leaves the companies which own the trains in entirely private hands.

The Scottish Government said there will be public sector bids for its contracts in future.

But when the East Coast franchise was run by the UK Government for five years after the failure of its private operator, watchdogs said there was little change in passenger satisfaction.

Politicians meddle with the structure of the railways at their peril - particularly as the current set up has become a huge overall success story, despite its limitations.

More than twice as many passengers are carried on a network one third smaller than it was 60 years ago.

Its safety record is also among the best in the world, with no passenger killed on a train for more than a decade.

The Conservatives’ privatisation of the railways shattered a monolith into hundreds of pieces, which are even now still coming back together to create the most streamlined entity since.

The cost of running the railways remains huge - it is the Scottish Government’s biggest single expense - and it is again struggling to cope with demand.

But huge amounts are being spent on providing more capacity, such as upgrading lines and new fleets of trains.

Continuing the improvement of an imperfect but functioning system must be the logical path rather than the costly and disruptive turmoil that nationalisation would bring.