Rail services in Scotland could fall back into public hands if performance doesn’t improve drastically over the next three years.
Scottish Transport Minister Humza Yousaf today reaffirmed his intention to make a statement to Parliament to ensure a public sector operator is formed to bid to run the nation’s trains.
Mr Yousaf said he is committed to improving the Scotrail service, currently run by Dutch firm Abellio, and is willing to work with unions and public sector organisations within a cross-party group to form a public franchise.
This could come in by 2020 when the break clause for the current deal comes in.
Scotrail has come under increasing pressure over the past year following an increasing number of complaints by commuters and passengers over the level of service and high percentage of trains running late according to the latest performance data.
There has also been anger over the wage rise of Abellio ScotRail managing director Phil Verster to £265,000 a year, despite the punctuality issues.
‘We are going through the biggest change and improvement in our railway infrastructure since the Victorian era’Scotrail
While praising Scotrail for its performance in relation to other operators in the UK, Mr Yousaf said: “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 am prepared to work with anyone who is serious about improving rail services.
“I am focussed on holding ScotRail to account for improving journey times and services now and on delivering our longer term commitments to revolutionise rail travel in Scotland.
“By 2019, there will be 23 per cent more seats available, including new trains on the Edinburgh – Glasgow next year, and inter-city high speed trains during 2018.
“And let’s not forget that ScotRail consistently outperforms many of the other train operating companies across the UK.”
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union has demanded “urgent” talks with the Minister regarding the Scotrail service and is in favour of bringing it into public ownership.
RMT General Secretary Mick Cash said: “The Scottish Transport Minister could not have been clearer in his comments over the weekend. He has fired the starting gun on a programme for bringing Scotrail into the public sector and it’s now time for his words to be turned into action.
“Any failure to now deliver, and any dragging of heels, would rightly provoke a massive public backlash.
“RMT said at the time that Abellio was awarded the Scotrail franchise that it was a gross betrayal of the Scottish people and was doomed to failure. We have been proved right but now is the time for decisive action to repair the damage and look to a future under public ownership and public control.
“RMT is calling for urgent talks to get the process moving and to put together a model for a modern, publicly-owned railway that brings a halt to two decades of fragmentation and profiteering.”
Scotrail says it has a performance improvement plan in place to achieve targets over the coming weeks and months.
There are plans to have 100,000 extra seats every week on trains by 2019 and the £475 million train improvement programme will mean new trains, upgrades to the existing fleet and better on-board facilities like Wi-fi and at-seat power points.
A ScotRail Alliance spokesperson said: “We are concentrating on delivering rail services as detailed in our performance improvement plan, which contains 246 individual actions to make things better, every single day.
“We are going through the biggest change and improvement in our railway infrastructure since the Victorian era.
“All of this will take time. While we are working on it, we will do everything we can to minimise disruption and to keep people moving. When it is all in place, we will have transformed rail travel in Scotland.”
Mr Yousaf also announced a public consultation on the future of rail services last week on a day when the network was left in chaos due to a broken down train in Edinburgh, forcing First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to apologise to passengers.
The Scottish Government consultation will last for three months and will give stakeholders and members of the public the opportunity to submit their views on how Scotland’s rail network should operate.
The survey will be used to inform the development of the Scottish Government’s High Level Output Specification (the HLOS) and broader rail investment strategy.
Mr Yousaf added: “This Scottish Government is currently taking forward the largest ever train improvement programme – £475m is being invested on trains bringing more seats, better reliability, availability and upgrading and refurbishing the existing fleet.
“Our revolution in rail will mean, within a couple of years, an extra 200 services a day in the north of the country and an extra 20,000 seats.
“I will continue to monitor their performance closely. While we are taking forward work to deliver a public sector operator to bid for future franchises, we must ensure the current contract delivers the service passengers desire and deserve, while frontline staff are recognised for their hard work.”
The consultation can be found on the Scottish Government’s Citizen Space website at: https://consult.scotland.gov.uk/rail-policy/rail-infrastructure-strategy-from-2019
The closing date for responses is Friday, February 24. While exact timings and venues are currently being finalised, those wishing to attend workshops can register their interest by emailing Rail.Infrastructure.Strategy@transport.gov.scot.