The key aspect of publicly-owned ScotRail that drivers' union Aslef doesn’t like

You’re never far from an industrial dispute at ScotRail – and nationalisation might have actually made things worse.

Those who thought taking Scotland’s main train operator back into public hands would be a panacea have clearly swallowed the political dogma without realising it’s likely to make far less difference than they might have thought.

ScotRail’s unions regularly agitate to defend or improve their members’ conditions, conscious of the sway they hold over a key part of the country’s transport network.

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The Rail, Maritime and Transport union, the company’s biggest, nearly brought it to a standstill during the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow in November before a deal was reached in its pay dispute with just four days to spare.

ScotRail drivers earn more than £50,000 a year. Picture: John Devlin

In the case of drivers, they’ve done very well, and now earn more than £50,000 a year, albeit for a hugely responsible job.

With more than 1,000 on the payroll, I can’t think of another organisation in Scotland with as many staff paid as much.

That’s thanks to a series of deals over the past two decades that have averted a strike by the main drivers’ union Aslef since a bitter three months of walkouts I well remember in 2002.

However, while Scottish Government control of ScotRail might suit the unions ideologically, they are now on a collision course with its public sector pay policy, an obstruction on the line not there under privatisation that will restrict pay increases to 2.2 per cent without efficiency savings.

I understand rail chiefs were taken aback by the swiftness with which Aslef moved from the breakdown of pay talks to threatening on Monday its first industrial action at ScotRail for 21 years.

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There must be an element of sabre rattling to the decision, as the union will keen to put down a marker for the new regime.

But ministers fear that resolution of the dispute could be hampered if it becomes tangled up with a separate RMT Britain-wide strike ballot over staff cuts at track owner Network Rail.

All this at a time when they are desperate to attract people back to ScotRail to reduce the hundreds of millions of pounds of extra funding required to keep it running during the pandemic.

What a start to public ownership.

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