ScotRail's return to public ownership means we will know who to blame if services don't improve – Scotsman comment

There are some who appear to think nationalising everything is the answer to all our problems, while others argue privatisation provides the route to the promised land.

Passengers will not be slow to judge if public ownership of ScotRail does not deliver much-needed improvements (Picture: John Devlin)
Passengers will not be slow to judge if public ownership of ScotRail does not deliver much-needed improvements (Picture: John Devlin)

And while the former will celebrate the news that ScotRail is to return to public ownership next year as the latter hang their heads, the reality of what has happened is not quite as cut and dried as it might seem.

Abellio, the current operator, is a private company but its operation of passenger services was tightly controlled – micro-managed, some would say – by the Scottish government. Furthermore, the change of ownership will see ScotRail run by an arms-length company, so this will not be a return to the days of British Rail. Given the vast majority of the staff will remain the same, the difference might not be immediately apparent.

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The problem with rail nationalism of old was that trains became a Cinderella service, neglected in favour of other pressing government priorities like health and education. And that’s understandable with ministers effectively faced with a choice between saving lives or making sure the 17.35 to Falkirk High gets there on time.

It may be that an arms-length company will be better protected from such pressures and trains are also a bigger government priority today than they were in the 1970s, when the car was king and we had yet to wake up to the threat posed by climate change.

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But what is clear is that ScotRail has had significant problems in recent years, so there is plenty of room for improvement and, if services for passengers do not get better, we will all know who to blame. With the Scottish government fully in charge, accusing fingers will have nowhere else to point.

Nationalisation is clearly the right policy for a small number of services and companies, but by no means for most. Few argue the Armed Forces or the NHS should privatised; even fewer would suggest the horrific idea of nationalising the making of all music.

Trains sit between these extremes on the spectrum, although they are closer to the NHS because of the lack of effective competition and the network’s strategic importance.

However, no-one should mistake public ownership as a solution to ScotRail’s woes in of itself. Ministers will have their work cut out.

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