The debate over whether ScotRail should be nationalised is a “meaningless distraction” from the “fundamental” problems on Scotland’s railways, a former transport minister has said.
Tom Harris, who served as junior transport minister in Tony Blair’s government, spoke out as a new report by the think tank Reform Scotland called for the infrastructure body Network Rail to be devolved north of the Border.
Network Rail, which is already a public sector body, was responsible for more than half the rail delays in Scotland during the last year, Mr Harris said.
The former Labour MP, who is a member of the Reform Scotland Advisory Board, said it was “logical” that Holyrood could do a better job of running rail infrastructure in Scotland than Westminster.
Meanwhile Reform Scotland said: “There needs to be a realisation that simply bringing ScotRail into public ownership would not make the trains run on time.” The think tank said “the majority of delays on ScotRail trains are attributed to Network Rail, whether as a result of operations, infrastructure or other external issues”, adding this meant 54 per cent of delays to ScotRail trains in the year to 11 November were “as a result of a body already within the public sector”.
It added: “Instead of arguing over who runs ScotRail, Reform Scotland thinks the focus of the debate around the rail network should be on Scotland’s poor rail connectivity; on our lack of electrification; and moving away from the obsession of cutting train times to London, when it can take longer to travel far shorter distances within Scotland.”
Calling for rail infrastructure to be devolved, the report said: “Although the Scottish Government is responsible for providing the strategic direction and funding for the Scottish rail network, ultimately Network Rail is a UK body answerable to the UK government. Reform Scotland believes that responsibility for the Scottish route should transfer to a new body directly responsible to, and answerable to, the Scottish Government.” However, RMT general secretary Mick Cash said bringing rail services back into public ownership would be vital.
He said the move would “guarantee stability and investment for the long term free from the franchising lottery and the drive for short term profits”.
A Network Rail spokesman said: “We work closely with the Scottish and UK governments to continually enhance and improve our railways.
“Here in Scotland, we are seeing a period of enhancement and expansion unmatched since the Victorian era with huge investment being delivered.”