ScotRail pay dispute’s impact on its finances could be critical – Alastair Dalton

Taking ScotRail back into public ownership had been a political mantra for parties on the left for years before it finally returned to state control last month, 25 years after the demise of British Rail.

For some, it represented the panacea to the railways’ problems, supposedly freeing the train operator from the clutches of profit and shareholder-focused private firms, even though the last ScotRail franchisee Abellio didn’t make a profit after early in its contract, and is actually an offshoot of Dutch state railways.

Arguably, ScotRail has been a huge success story both in private and public hands, but it has also repeatedly suffered setbacks by being a victim of circumstance – usually unexpected and often bizarre.

That hasn’t and won’t change under the Scottish Government, and nationalisation has effectively precipitated the current crisis by bringing ScotRail staff within public sector pay limits, which the unions representing train drivers and conductors have rejected, calling strike ballots.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon unveils a specially branded train to mark the Scottish Government's takeover of ScotRail on April 1 (Picture: Robert Perry/PA Wire)

Pre-pandemic, ScotRail chiefs agonised over problems like poor punctuality caused by Network Rail’s track and signalling faults, and overcrowding exacerbated by delays to a new train fleet resulting from the wrong type of cab windows.

Post-Covid, they are being frustrated by a new set of problems hampering passenger recovery – a driver shortage caused by virus-related training delays, and having their hands tied by ministers' pay policy.

Because ScotRail does not have enough drivers to operate a full service without relying on voluntary overtime – which most drivers have stopped doing after rejecting a 2.2 per cent offer – it said it has been forced to temporarily cut back the timetable to make it reliable.

This has meant one third fewer services since Monday, with the last trains on many routes hours earlier than normal.

That change was badly communicated, and if some services are subsequently restored, passengers will wonder why they were cut in the first place.

However, there’s a danger of hyperbole here, since ScotRail said it continues to run a near-normal service from 7am to 7pm in and around Glasgow, where 60 per cent of its passengers travel.

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Also, far from train disruption bringing Scotland to a halt, in 2018 just 5.4 per cent of people commuted to work by rail, which accounted for only 2.3 per cent of all travel – and that was before many people started working from home.

If drivers didn’t still have the overtime card to play, we’re likely to have been much closer to far more disruptive industrial action.

In addition, the dispute may yet be overshadowed by a separate one involving other train operators, including all the daytime cross-Border companies and Network Rail, which could bring the entire network to a halt if the latter’s signallers walk out.

ScotRail’s pay dispute will be settled at some point – just as last year’s was, just before the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow.

But the underlying threat to ScotRail is the mushrooming cost to the taxpayer of running the railways, which has already reached £690 million a year because of lower fare revenue.

The current disruption is likely to further delay a recovery of passenger numbers.

Such increased reliance on state funding against competing demands from other key service like schools and hospitals does not bode well for the future.

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