Humz Yousaf to make statement on ScotRail '˜chaos'

Under-fire transport minister Humza Yousaf is to make statement to MSPs about the situation on Scotland's railways as he clashed with current operator Abellio over the prospect of returning service to public ownership.

Transport Minister Humza Yousaf. Photograph: John Devlin
Transport Minister Humza Yousaf. Photograph: John Devlin

The Dutch firm today appeared to play down the prospect of such a move transforming the service, insisting the Scottish Government will still be responsible for issues like prices and overcrowding.

The operator hit back at recent sniping over its performance, calling for a focus from critics on “customers’ interests and not their own.”

Opposition leaders stepped up the pressure on Mr Yousaf with claims that passengers have lost confidence in his ability to address concerns over punctuality and cancellations on Scotland’s railways.

Recent criticism of the performance on Scotland’s railways hit a crescendo last week when a rush-hour breakdown between Edinburgh’s Haymarket and Waverley stations delayed thousands of commuters as services across the country were hit.

Mr Yousaf has said he wants to work with unions and other political parties to put together a public sector bid to run the railways, which could be ready for 2020 when a clause in the contract with Abellio would allow it to be broken.

“I will be proposing to make a statement to Parliament this week so all parties can discuss how we improve our rail services,” he said yesterday

“I also reiterate my offer to the rail unions, opposition politicians, and public sector organisations to meet me to discuss the possible shape of a public sector franchise bid. I am prepared to work with anyone who is serious about improving rail services.”

ScotRail was forced to produce a performance improvement plan in September, at the request of Transport Scotland, after punctuality and reliability fell below standard.

Mr Yousaf added: “As I have made clear, our focus is firmly on driving up standards for passengers and ScotRail bosses have been left in no doubt about the need for improvements, and the seriousness of my intent. I will continue to monitor their performance closely.

But the minister’s proposal to effectively bring services back into public ownership met with a terse response from current operator Abellio last night.

Charlotte Twyning, director of policy, strategy and communications said the company had “no problem” competing with public bids.

But she added: “It should be recognised that half of the rail industry is already nationalised in the form of Network Rail and any operator that runs the ScotRail franchise - public or private - does so to a tightly specified Scottish Government contract, which means that ministers set fares and essentially determine how many seats are available and therefore how much overcrowding exists across the network.”

And she added: “Rail passengers are better served by organisations and individuals collaborating in customers’ interests and not their own, and we encourage all parties to do so.”

Labour and the Conservatives say travellers want to see improvements now.

Labour transport spokesman Neil Bibby said: “The Transport Minister’s public statements under pressure have managed to start a war of words with both the rail unions and now Abellio.

“As Abellio has said today, ministers ‘set fares and essentially determine how many seats are available and therefore how much overcrowding exists across the network’.

“This shambles is the SNP’s responsibility. As winter arrives, Mr Yousaf needs to focus on making sure his improvement plan makes services better - not worse - in the coming weeks.”

Tory finance spokesman Murdo Fraser said the public ownership proposals had been drawn up to “deflect attention” from his handling of the ScotRail contract.

He added: “If this is a serious proposal, he needs to offer some clear answers to parliament on how exactly it would work.

“How much would it cost taxpayers? Who would pay for new trains? Either Mr Yousaf can answer these questions, or we will know for sure his plans were scribbled over the weekend on the back of a fag packet.”