A parliamentary bid to end the Abellio franchise of Scotland’s beleaguered rail service three years early has failed amid bad-tempered exchanges between SNP and Scottish Labour politicians.
Despite support from the Scottish Greens and Liberal Democrats, the Labour motion to end the ScotRail contract in 2022 - in the belief that the train operator should be nationalised - was voted down by SNP and Conservative MSPs.
An attempt by the Scottish Government to win support for an overhaul of the railway franchise system to enable “full Scottish public sector control of the operation of the railway system” was also defeated.
The opposition debate in Holyrood saw transport minister Michael Matheson, and his Labour shadow Colin Smyth, trade verbal blows over differing public ownership ideas, with each accusing the other of relying on Tory votes to defeat each others’ proposals.
The Labour call to end the contract during a “break clause” had been backed by transport unions, including Aslef, the TSSA and the RMT, who also called for ScotRail to be brought into public ownership. And the debate came after figures released this week showed that 74,514 trains have been cancelled since Dutch firm Abellio began running the service in April 2015.
Speaking in the debate, Mr Smyth warned against an extension of the current agreement. “Extending the franchise, frankly, would reward failure,” he said.
“It would send a signal to private rail operators that it doesn’t matter how poor your performance is, you won’t ever have to deliver on your franchise targets.
“Ending the franchise in 2022, however, would give the Government two years to put in place a public sector operator bid.
“I hope in that time we’ll see a change of UK Government - a Labour government would end the wasteful and inefficient franchising system altogether, repealing the Tories’ 1993 Railways Act so we can have a proper public ownership of our railways, bringing train and track together under a single, publicly-owned company with all decisions being made here in Scotland on Scottish routes.
“Even members who don’t support public ownership must see that the current franchise is just not working.”
However, Transport Secretary Michael Matheson said it would cost £10m just to put together a public sector bid for the contract, and he outlined investment of £8 billion made by the Scottish Government in rail improvements in Scotland.
He did acknowledge that ScotRail’s operations “have not performed to the levels specified and required by this Government” but said that time should be given to ensure that the remedial notices issued over the last year were met.
Mr Matheson also called for MSPs to back his aim to gain full public sector control of the structure, governance and operation of the Scottish railway system. He said: “The existing franchise system is costly and complex. In my view it is no longer fit for purpose.
“Under current UK legislation we only have the power to franchise for the running of rail services in Scotland. We have secured the right for a public sector body to compete for a franchise, but it leaves us with the same broken franchise process and the complicated rail system we have today.
“Let me be clear, the decision on the future of the ScotRail franchise will be based on a rigorous and detailed evaluation of what is the right thing to do for passengers, communities and the taxpayer.
“But simply ending the contract early will not wave a magic wand to fix the challenges we have on our railways. And rushing into a decision to end a franchise early without correct due diligence would not be in passengers’ or the Scottish taxpayers’ interest.”
The Transport Secretary also welcomed the Williams rail review established by the UK Government, adding that it “has the potential to reform the structures of Scotland’s railways in a positive way”.
He added that Labour should support the “possibility of creating a public sector railway in Scotland” and not attempt to create a UK railway body which “would take powers away from the Scottish Parliament”.
After losing the vote, Mr Smyth said: “SNP MSPs have teamed up with the Tories to keep the failing Abellio ScotRail franchise in place. This is yet another kick in the teeth for rail passengers across the country.”
Abellio said it welcomed the decision of the Parliament not to support the Labour motion.
A spokesperson for Abellio ScotRail said: “We are pleased that Parliament has not taken a short term view of the future of Scotland’s railway.
“It is vital the transformation of Scotland’s railway continues. Our investment of £475m has already delivered more services, more seats, more jobs and new trains at less cost to the taxpayer.
“We recognise that we need to deliver the railway customers expect and deserve, and we are committed to completing that job during this franchise.”