Labour demand to end ScotRail contract early sparks war of words

A demand to end the Abellio franchise of Scotrail three years early has sparked a major rift between Scottish Labour, rail unions and the Dutch-owned rail company.

Colin Smyth MSP. Picture: Andrew Cowan/Scottish Parliament

Transport unions have backed the call for Abellio to lose its contract to run ScotRail, but the company says “any change would undermine the progress that has been made and be far more costly to the taxpayer”.

An opposition debate in Holyrood today will see Labour demand the Scottish Government scrap the franchise in 2022, after the party revealed that almost 75,000 trains have been cancelled since Abellio took over in 2015, while ticket prices have risen by 13 per cent.

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The vote comes as the SNP weighs up whether it wants to extend the franchise with Abellio, as the government would need to begin work on the negotiations from the end of this month and conclude them by the end of March.

While Labour hopes to defeat the government, it will lose if the Scottish Conservatives refuse to support it, as they did during a previous attempt. However, if the motion is successful the government would come under extreme pressure to issue a “no rebasing notice”, meaning the franchise would expire in 2022.

Scottish Labour’s transport spokesperson Colin Smyth said: “It is clear that the absolute mismanagement of Scotland’s railways has led to anger among passengers, transport staff and the unions that represent them.

“ The SNP promised a ‘world-leading’ deal when they handed Abellio the ScotRail franchise but instead passengers have been hit by delays and cancellations, increased rail fares and a loss of confidence in the company and government’s ability to manage our railways. It’s time the government ended this failing franchise and for once put passengers before profits.”

The General Secretaries of three transport unions, ASLEF, TSSA, and the RMT, said they backed Labour’s demand for re-nationalisation “in the interest of the travelling public” who are “served a diet of poor performance” with both staff and passengers “paying the price of privatisation”.

However Labour’s vote was criticised as “hypocritical”, with a spokesperson for transport secretary Michael Matheson saying the party had “consistently blocked the right for a public sector body to bid for a rail franchise. It was the SNP who won that right and meanwhile, Labour has just handed the contract for rail services to a private sector firm in Wales.

“It’s essential that responsibility for our railways rests with the Scottish Parliament so that we can meet the needs of commuters. We urgently need control of Network Rail to be devolved.”

Sources at Abellio said the firm was delivering the “biggest transformation of Scotland’s railway since the Victorian era” with a £20m investment, but that it recognised the “impact poor performance has on customers’ lives”.

Dominic Booth, managing director of Abellio UK said: “Scotland’s railway needs stability, not the upheaval a change in the franchise would bring about. We have delivered more services, seats, jobs and investment at less cost to the taxpayer.

“Scottish Labour’s motion threatens not only the long- term vision for the railway, it creates uncertainty for thousands of staff and 100 million passengers.”