Few saw Abellio being stripped of the contract coming but it could just plunge Scotland’s (very) slowly improving railways into uncertainty.
To say Abellio being stripped of the ScotRail franchise early was a surprise is a pretty big understatement – much of the rail industry didn’t see it coming.
I first got wind of it shortly before 9am on Wednesday – more than five hours before Transport Secretary Michael Matheson confirmed the decision to MSPs.
But apart from my impeccable initial source, those I contacted in various parts of the railways and among leading politicians had no inkling or thought it unlikely, some even suggesting the announcement would actually be good news for Abellio.
Mr Matheson had talked of ScotRail’s improving performance when he opened the new Robroyston station in Glasgow on Monday, and several ScotRail chiefs joined a farewell tour of one of its old fleets on Wednesday morning apparently unperturbed by the minister’s impending statement.
The Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency refused to discuss what I’d been told, and Abellio said it hadn’t been informed, even though it had clearly prepared for bad news in issuing a detailed statement seven minutes after Mr Matheson started speaking.
It was only just before Mr Matheson got to his feet that I finally received corroboration of my original tip-off, but that was alas too late to break the news ahead of the announcement.
But will it make ScotRail any better? Not in the short term, as Abellio will still have to run the trains for another two years for far less money than they say they need.
It seems that either the firm will have to make more cuts – though much of the operation is bound up in a detailed contract – or stomach even greater losses than the tens of millions racked up so far. Or will Abellio’s claim for more cash be found to be exaggerated and that it’s able to continue to 2022 for what Transport Scotland said it would cost?
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday described the situation as a “failure”. But it isn’t. Things are – very – slowly improving thanks to new trains and better punctuality.
By axing the franchise with no clear plan for a successor, ScotRail faces uncertainty while it remains in the hands of an operator with no incentive to do anything more than fulfil its obligations. Significantly, Abellio wasn’t terminated for poor performance, despite several remedial plans. It was shown the door after a disagreement over how much it will cost to run the trains.
But will any other operator – private or public – be able to run the same service any cheaper? Remember, many of ScotRail’s woes stem from failings by UK Government-owned Network Rail and the manufacturers and refitters supplying ScotRail’s new train fleets.
While one of the fleets – 70 electric trains for lines in Central Belt – are in service at last, only two thirds of its 40-year-old “High Speed Trains” are running on inter-city routes, some not even refurbished, a year after all of them should have been in service.
This has caused many significant knock-on effects that have infuriated passengers, such as seat reservations being scrapped and a delay to other trains being freed up to ease chronic overcrowding, especially in Fife.
So was it a handy political move, with the 2021 Holyrood elections in mind, for the SNP to be able to tell voters they are showing Abellio the door and promise things will improve, despite no certainty that will happen?