ScotFail – public sector may be called in to end railway services shambles
By Bill Heaney
Fed-up First Minister Nicola Sturgeon found herself pushed to the limit on the question of pathetic railway services in the Scottish Parliament on Thursday.
Her patience hit the buffers when she was taunted by Tory Party stand-in leader Jackson Carlaw about the appalling service ScotRail has provided in the run-up to Christmas.
And it led to her declaring that the SNP will allow a public sector bid for the next rail franchise – “and we will do what I would expect the architects of privatisation on the Tory benches to oppose tooth and nail: continue to argue for full devolution of all powers over the railways, so that we are responsible for Network Rail as well as ScotRail and so that this Parliament has the opportunity to nationalise our railways and to undo the damage of privatisation caused by the Tories.”
Jackson Carlaw said: “Punctuality in our train service has reached its worst point for 12 years. Hundreds of trains have been cancelled. There have been shortages of staff, because people are being trained to use the new class of trains—the introduction of which has also been delayed, causing another 100 services to be cut last month. Does the First Minister think that train passengers across Scotland are owed an apology?”
Ms Sturgeon said: “ScotRail has made it clear that it regrets the cancellations and delays that have been caused. Let me be perfectly clear: the level of cancellations—this week, in particular—has been unacceptable.”
There had been a numbers of reasons for this due to a combination of factors—not least train crew shortages and infrastructure issues being just two of them.
The First Minister added: “However, the blame for the cancellations cannot simply be laid at the door of ScotRail. Tragically, we must recognise that understandable knock-on disruption followed the loss of life on the railways this week. I am sure that the sympathies of everyone in the chamber go to the families and loved ones of those who have died.
“That said, I want to be clear that we have seen a significant and unacceptable number of delays that are clearly ScotRail’s responsibility.”
Jackson Carlaw revealed that, since 2011, there have been more than 35,000 cancellations or part cancellations caused entirely by ScotRail – 5,000 a year.
He added: “People want to know why the Scottish National Party Government is failing to deliver”.
Ms Sturgeon explained: “Our responsibility is to continue to work with ScotRail to deliver improvements. In the past few weeks, there have been issues with shortages of train crews and, as ScotRail has set out, that is largely down to two issues. The introduction of the new timetable has been affected by the late delivery of the Hitachi trains. There is not quite the number of Hitachi trains in service that was expected. There was also industrial action, which, I am glad to say, is now resolved.
“ScotRail is working hard to resolve those issues, as I have said. Again, I am not saying that this is good enough and I recognise the frustration of the travelling public, but the number of cancellations has been reduced and I expect to see that number continue to reduce and continued improvement during the next few days, particularly as we go into the holiday period and then the new year.
“The transport secretary [Michael Matheson] discusses those issues with ScotRail regularly. He spoke to the managing directors of ScotRail and Abellio earlier this week and made clear the urgent need for improvement.”
She added: “Tough sanctions for failure to deliver are in place, and it is right and proper that that is the case. Of course, passengers contribute to the cost of running the railway through rail fares, and again, I absolutely understand the frustration of passengers who are paying rail fares and not getting the performance that they deserve.
“However, it is important to stress that the Scottish Government meets the majority of the cost of rail passenger services in Scotland. We have taken action to minimise the impact on passengers by capping increases for regulated ScotRail peak fares at the level of the retail price index. Regulated off-peak fare increases are capped at 1 per cent lower than the rate of inflation. We will continue to do what we can to keep rail fares as reasonable as possible, and we will continue our work to invest in our railways, to improve the number and quality of services, and to ensure that ScotRail is taking the action that it needs to take to resolve the difficulties that have been experienced in recent weeks.”
Alex Hynes, the managing director of ScotRail, who recently received a big pay rise. Critics have reacted with anger after a breakdown of high earners compiled by the Cabinet Office showed Mr Hynes is now earning between £270,000 and £275,000.