'We just run the trains': ScotRail chiefs complained they did not know benefits of public ownership

ScotRail executives complained they had not been briefed on the benefits of the train operator being brought into public ownership, less than a month before the Scottish Government took over.

The admission came in emails sent by the company’s communications director David Ross on the topic of the launch of ScotRail as a publicly owned company on March 3.

In them, executives are reported to have complained about having “nothing substantive to say on the future”, adding it was the government’s job to make the case for public ownership.

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The Scottish Government claimed the comments “merely reflect” discussions about the clarity of public messaging.

ScotRail was brought into public ownership after years of crisis and concerns about the quality of service from prior franchise holders Abellio.

But the service has already been plagued by problems since nationalisation started on April 1, with ScotRail chiefs forced to introduce a restricted timetable with limited late-night trains amid prolonged negotiations with union Aslef over drivers’ pay.

Critics said the executive comments demonstrated there had been a “damning lack of preparation from the SNP” when taking over ScotRail.

First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon unveils a specially branded train at Glasgow Queen Street Station on the day ScotRail transferred from Dutch firm Abellio into public ownership.

In the emails, released under Freedom of Information legislation, Mr Ross explains how the train operator’s operations director, David Simpson, complained the communications plan for the launch event was not “clear” around the question of “why the public sector will be better for customers and staff”.

He goes on to complain that “we just run the trains”.

The email states: “David Simpson is happy, but raised a concern about not being clear what our message is on why the public sector will be better for customers and staff.

"He’s right on that point, but the problem we have linked to point one (above) is that the government hasn’t articulated clearly why the public sector will be better. The lack of budget/agreed business plan means we’ve nothing substantive to say on the future, and it’s also for the government to make the case rather than us. We just run the trains.

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"In light of David’s point I’ve tweaked the message slightly to emphasise a smooth transition and stability.”

Scottish Labour’s transport spokesperson Neil Bibby said it was an example of the SNP’s failure to prepare ScotRail for public ownership.

“These comments show a damning lack of preparation from the SNP – a lack of preparation that the public are now paying for,” he said.

“With no business plan, confusion over budgets and little forward planning, the SNP have managed to mismanage public ownership on epic proportions.

“This is all evidence that the SNP are not the party of public ownership. They are the party of populist policies with no substance and no plan.”

A spokesperson for ScotRail said the transition to public ownership had been a “significant moment” for the operator, and provided “fantastic opportunities” to change the future of rail travel in Scotland.

The spokesperson said: “We’ve been working closely with the Scottish Government to continue to develop our plans for what the future looks like for a publicly-owned ScotRail as we seek to keep pace with the different ways our customers now travel, and our customers will remain at heart of what we do as we continue to modernise the way we work.”

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However, Scottish Conservative transport spokesperson Graham Simpson said it was clear the SNP had “absolutely no idea what they are doing” in regards to ScotRail.

He said: “We knew all along that the SNP never had a plan for how they would run ScotRail and what they would do differently.

“The chickens are coming home to roost now because it is clear that they have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

“They did no due diligence and no forward planning. During the current debacle, [transport secretary] Jenny Gilruth has been posted missing, acting like all the disruption we have seen is nothing to do with her.

“As we predicted, NatRail has been Natfail since day one.”

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “These comments merely reflect conversations about making our message about public ownership as clear as possible – a publicly-owned railway is run for the benefit of staff, passengers and communities as opposed to shareholders.

“The National Conversation on public ownership will, of course, allow the people of Scotland to be part of the vision which moves Scotland’s railway forward.”

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