Abellio ScotRail contract hits the buffers and will end three years early
By Democrat reporters
Abellio ScotRail’s contract to run train services in Scotland will end early, Transport Secretary Michael Matheson has announced.
The Dutch firm has been running the franchise since 2015 but had faced criticism over cancellations and performance levels.
The contract, worth more than £7bn over ten years, was due to last until 2025.
But Mr Matheson said a so-called “break clause” would be used to end the franchise three years early, in 2022.
He told MSPs he was looking at other options for the future, including the franchise being run by the public sector.
What is the ScotRail franchise?
ScotRail operates about 2,400 train services a day, and covers all services in Scotland except those run by other operators which cross the border.
It is not responsible for the maintenance of the track, which falls under Network Rail nor the operation of the main rail routes from Glasgow and Edinburgh to London.
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There had been political pressure on ministers over the service with complaints over a high number of cancellations, overcrowding and the cost of tickets.
In a statement to the Scottish Parliament, Mr Matheson said a proposed increase in government subsidy for the service would not deliver sufficient benefits to passengers or the economy.
Mr Matheson said Abellio had “successes and challenges” over the first five years of the ScotRail franchise, but that his decision was “the right one for passengers, communities, the economy and taxpayers”.
He confirmed the contract would now run until 31 March, 2022.
“It is of course necessary to plan for the future provision of ScotRail services and I can confirm that work is already under way to examine the options open to the Scottish ministers after the current contract comes to an end,” he said.
The franchise system for Britain’s railways is grinding to a halt.
The Scottish government has jammed on the brakes and change is also expected soon at Westminster.
The reason given to MSPs for ending the franchise is 2022 stuck carefully to the contractual option on doing so and avoided the shortcomings of Abellio’s handling of the franchise since 2015.
That would be open to legal challenge. Such a challenge would point out that the service has improved in the past year, with the arrival of new trains, adding more capacity. There’s a new station in north-west Glasgow and improvements to the Aberdeen-Inverness service have just begun.
What happens next? Abellio is obliged to continue the service until the franchise ends.
The soon to be published Williams Review is expected to start a big shift away from the franchise bidding system. Pricing for tickets is expected to be shaken up.
In Scotland, there is pressure within the SNP, from unions, Labour and Greens, to put ScotRail operations in public hands. If there’s to be another franchise, the government previously said it wants a public sector bidder for it. If there is to be one from April 2022, it will have to get up and running very soon.
What has been the reaction?
Dominic Booth, managing director of Abellio UK, said the firm was “hugely disappointed” and that the decision was “the wrong choice for Scotland’s Railway and its customers”.
He said the company had invested more than £475m in new and upgraded trains and created more than 500 extra jobs in Scotland.
Mr Booth added: “Our offer to Transport Scotland would have delivered an improved service for our customers at a reduced cost to the taxpayer.”
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But Kevin Lindsay, organiser for the train drivers’ trade union Aslef in Scotland, claimed Abellio had let down passengers and staff.
He added: “The truth is that the franchise model is a broken business model. It hasn’t worked, it doesn’t work and it will not work. Everyone on the railway understands that.”
Scottish Labour also welcomed the decision and called for the rail system to return to public ownership while the Scottish Liberal Democrats said the company had provided a “poor service”.
Scottish Conservative shadow transport minister Jamie Greene described the termination of the contract as “an admission of absolute failure” by the SNP.
Jackie Baillie MSP for Dumbarton, Vale of Leven and Helensburgh said: “For the past two years I have campaigned to end Abellio’s shambolic tenure in charge of Scotland’s railways. Ever since taking over the franchise, Abellio has made big promises and commitments but failed to deliver on them consistently.
“I am glad that the SNP has listened to my campaign and the concerns of local passengers who travel daily between Dumbarton, Helensburgh and Balloch to end this failing franchise. Passengers have had to put up with delays, cancellations, stop skipping, short formed trains and are crammed into carriages like sardines. And the problems continue today.
“The Cabinet Secretary must also ensure that the service is improved between now and the end of the franchise in March 2022.
“This news is a step in the right direction, but what is needed now is for the Scottish Government to make a serious public sector bid for the control of ScotRail. Not flog it off once more to a foreign-based private company, focused only on profit. Only then, will the issues experienced by my constituents, and passengers across Scotland, be addressed.”
Responding to the Scottish Government’s announcement that it has exercised the break clause and will end Abellio ScotRail’s contract in March 2022, Scottish Liberal Democrat transport spokesperson Mike Rumbles MSP said:
“I very much welcome this decision to end Abellio’s contract. It’s not up to the job. The Liberal Democrats have been calling for this move for some time.
“Passengers are sick to the back teeth of the poor service that has been provided by this company. Overcrowding, endless cancellations, stop skipping and delays have gone on too long.
“The government must now take action to make sure that there is stronger protection for customers in the future franchise agreement. They also need to look carefully at including more break points in the new contract to ensure there is a much better chance to correct poor performance earlier on. The Transport Secretary cannot repeat the same mistakes.”
Earlier, Jackie Baillie told the Scottish Parliament: “I thank the cabinet secretary for the early Christmas present to the hard-pressed commuters in my area, and I welcome his recognition of Scottish Labour’s campaign, which highlighted the myriad problems with the rail service.
“Commuters in Helensburgh, Balloch and Dumbarton have experienced delays, cancellations, skip-stopping and short-form trains, with passengers crammed in like sardines. Those problems continue today, so what assurances will he give my constituents about the level of service that they will receive from now until March 2022, when the Abellio contract finally comes to an end?”
Michael Matheson replied: “I am pleased to give Jackie Baillie’s constituents an early Christmas present, if that is how she views the matter. It is a decision that was made purely on the basis of the rebasing requirement in the franchise agreement.
“Despite the problems that there continue to be in the network, I am sure that Jackie Baillie will recognise that improvements have been made in addressing a range of issues; it has certainly been the case that improvements have been provided as a result of the Donovan review.
“Alongside that, the remedial plan will be put in place for improvements that ScotRail has to take forward. Equally, Network Rail needs to undertake measures on improving reliability.
“I know that there have been particular issues on the line to Dumbarton, which has failed on a number of occasions. We need to make sure that Network Rail is doing everything that it can to minimise that type of recurring problem on the route to Dumbarton, and in any other part of the Scottish network.
“All the provisions that are in the franchise agreement at the moment continue to be there; they will continue to be enforced, and we will continue to work with Abellio ScotRail to make sure that it is held to account on those matters. I assure Jackie Baillie that we will continue to focus on making sure that, where concerns about passenger services are raised, Abellio ScotRail addresses them.”