MSPs to vote on public ownership of trains

A Holyrood move to bring Scotland's trains back into public ownership amid anger about delays and overcrowding will come before MSPs this week.

There has been widespread criticism of Abellio ScotRails failure to hit franchise performance levels. Picture: John Devlin

The Scottish Government has said public sector operators could bid for the ScotRail franchise when the current ten-year deal with Dutch state-owned operator Abellio ends in 2025.

However, ministers can exercise an opportunity in 2020 to end the franchise by its first expiry date in 2022 – and this will be put to a vote of MSPs at Holyrood this week.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

There has been widespread criticism of Abellio ScotRail’s failure to hit franchise performance levels, with Transport Secretary Michael 
Matheson revealing recently that he has allowed “temporary waiver” on targets until next June. But ministers say ScotRail performance is above UK average.

Labour will raise the prospect of cancelling the current franchise deal early in Parliamentary debate this week.

“Passengers across Scotland are fed up with overcrowded, overpriced and late running trains,” said Labour Transport spokesman Colin Smyth.

“It’s time to hit the brakes on privatisation and bring our railways back into public ownership.

“The SNP claimed that the Abellio contract would be a world leading deal – instead the government has shifted the goal posts on targets and given the franchise a licence to fail.

“For years the Nationalists have said they would work up a public sector bid, but that promise appears further behind schedule than the average train journey in Scotland.

“If the SNP was serious about a public sector bid it would be ready to step in at the first opportunity to end the franchise.

“On Wednesday Labour will make the case to end the franchise at the first opportunity, and accelerate the process for public ownership.”

Ferry operator David MacBrayne, which is wholly owned by Scottish ministers, has already expressed an interest in taking over the rail franchise.

Transport union TSSA also backs a public sector bid and has argued that the franchise system should be scrapped all together.

The Greens have also been supportive of the public sector bid and could back the move, but it may struggle to command a Holyrood majority with the SNP and Tories both likely to oppose such a move.

It is understood ministers are wary of invoking the break clause for 2020 and transferring responsibility to a public body, as this may incur costs and may not even be a prudent use of taxpayer’s money.

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “We have already secured the right for a public sector operator to bid for a rail franchise in Scotland – after being denied by previous UK Governments (including Labour) – which will enable a level playing field between the private and public sector in bidding for rail franchises for the benefit of passengers and best value for the public purse.”