My week at Holyrood will begin today like any other – with an early morning subway journey followed by an express train across the Central Belt. For me and hundreds of thousands of other commuters, rail travel is a necessity, allowing us to work on the move.
It is our most efficient form of motorised transport, and its growth will be key to tackling the climate emergency facing Scotland and the world.
With any luck, it will be plain sailing this morning. It was not on Wednesday last week, the day Scottish Labour used its debating time in Parliament to propose a motion calling for the end of the ScotRail franchise.
Shortly before my planned departure time from Glasgow Queen Street, we were informed that the 8.45am train had been cancelled. The next train left ten minutes late. With an entire peak-time service emptying onto it, it was standing room only by the time we reached Falkirk.
Such chaos, which once would have been quite remarkable, has become the norm. In fact when Scottish Labour researched into it, we found that an average of 47 trains have been cancelled every day since Abellio was awarded the ScotRail franchise.
When the franchise was announced, it was trumpeted by the Scottish Government as “world leading”. I am sure this is not what they meant.
Democracy – and much else besides – delayed
I can report that last Wednesday, the Tory MSP Adam Tomkins and Jamie Hepburn, the SNP minister for business, fair work and skills, were also stuck on the same train.
The Scottish Parliament’s Constitution and Finance Committee had to postpone its start thanks to the delays. Politicians can cope, but how many doctors, nurses and teachers were held up that morning? How many school classes, medical appointments or even operations were delayed or cancelled as a result?
As he refreshed his phone for updates, the minister must have wondered whether his vote to extend the Abellio franchise that evening was really in the best interests of business, fair work or skills.
In a quite scurrilous and desperate attempt to divert attention, the SNP tabled an amendment to our motion which removed the demand to end the ScotRail franchise, but called for “Scottish public control” of the railways.
An unprincipled alliance of SNP and Tory MSPs voted for something which was offering neither Scottish nor public control. On the contrary their combined vote which defeated the Labour proposal allows Abellio, which is owned by the Dutch state, a free run at an additional three years after the franchise’s “first expiry date”.
And into the future, all they advocate is giving state-owned enterprises “permission” to bid against foreign governments and private transport giants within the existing failed franchising system.
Even if a state-owned company like ferries operator CalMac emerged as the winner in such an unnecessary process, it could easily end up being challenged in the courts by unsuccessful private bidders. And such a model would encourage a public rail operator to behave like a private company in all but name.
A state-owned public service
Labour does not just want to change the title deeds on our railways: we want to reintegrate them into a state-owned integrated public service which puts passengers first. We want to stop the blame game where ministers attempt to pass the buck on to Network Rail, wilfully ignoring the fact that Network Rail works in a formal partnership with ScotRail through the Scotrail Alliance.
We need new investment in our rail network. After all, we can only encourage polluting traffic off our roads if we offer viable public transport alternatives. Tickets are complicated and overpriced across our transit systems. In Glasgow, for instance, passengers, and I am one of them, switching between the subway, ScotRail and multiple private bus operators have to buy a separate ticket for each leg of the journey. And with bus services regularly under threat, it is no surprise that many commuters feel their only option is to take the car.
That’s one reason why the SNP’s proposed workplace parking levy, which we will seek to remove from the Transport Bill tomorrow, is the wrong approach. It will foist a new tax on employers – and more realistically, the employees whom it will be passed onto.
Without a significant growth in public transport alternatives, many workers will have no choice but to stump up the extra cash and keep driving – leaving congestion remaining at its current levels. The levy will be charged at the same price to the chief executive and the call centre worker alike. And while it is intended to provide a new revenue stream to cash-strapped councils, in reality it will only provide a sticking plaster for Tory austerity exacerbated by SNP cuts to funding for local services. One estimate I’ve seen points out that it will also take away at least £5 million from other public bodies or their workers.
But the way forward is also in the Transport Bill – thanks to pressure from Scottish Labour. After the move won support at the previous stage in the Bill’s passage, the Government has now committed to lifting the ban on council-run bus operations. This Thatcher-era prohibition has left our bus system fragmented and failing to serve our communities – not least our rural communities. Allowing councils to take the initiative and reinvigorate public transport will be key to our aspiration for universal free bus travel in Scotland. If this was combined with the introduction of publicly owned and run rail services, we could deliver integrated ticketing across different modes of transport, which the very effective Get Glasgow Moving campaign among others is calling for.
If we are serious about systemic change and protecting our planet, token gestures will not be enough. To keep Scotland moving this century, we need a transport system that works for Scotland’s people and environment. As long as our trains and buses are in private hands, the shareholder dividend and the profit motive will always come first. That’s no way to run a modern public transport system.