The Scottish Government has announced that, when the current Abellio ScotRail franchise ends in March 2022, it will take passenger rail services into public ownership.
The decision was announced by Michael Matheson, Scotland’s Transport Secretary, who told the Sottish parliament that ScotRail services will be provided, within the public sector, by an arm’s length company owned and controlled by the Scottish Government.
In the meantime, new Emergency Measures Agreements (EMAs) for both the ScotRail and Caledonian Sleeper franchises will be put in place for the period 1 April until September this year.
Michael Matheson stated: “At this difficult time, I want to give rail staff and passengers as much certainty as I can about the future.
“I have repeatedly stated the current franchising system is no longer fit for purpose. Keith Williams, who led the UK Rail Review process, has also said that ‘franchising cannot continue in the way that it is today’. Yet, there is continued uncertainty about the form and timing of rail reform emerging from the UK Government review process, which is now a year overdue.
“It is high time that the UK Government listened to our requests to place the future structure of Scottish’s railway in Scotland’s hands. The simplest way to do this is to devolve rail powers.
“In the meantime, with the current ScotRail franchise expected to end in March 2022, we need to take decisions about successor arrangements within the current legislative framework. We have for some time been considering the full range of options available under that framework for continuing services beyond the franchise expiry.
“Following a detailed assessment process, and given the uncertainty caused by Covid 19, alongside the continuing delays to the UK Government White Paper on rail reform, I have decided that it would not be appropriate to award a franchise agreement to any party at this time, either through a competition or a direct award.
“That is why I have confirmed that, from the expiry of the current franchise, ScotRail services will be provided in public hands through a company wholly owned and controlled by the Scottish Government. This is in line with our Operator of Last Resort duty.
“ScotRail staff will transfer to the new Scottish Government owned entity, with their terms and conditions protected.
“This approach will provide a stable platform for ScotRail services and certainty for passengers and staff.”
In December 2019, Scottish Ministers announced their decision not to rebase the Abellio ScotRail franchise. As a result, the current franchise is expected to end in March 2022.
The current EMAs, which were put in place last September, expire on 31 March 2021. The new EMAs from 1 April, which will cover the period until 19 September 2021 and will cost an estimated £173.1 million, are intended to not only provide staff and suppliers with reassurance but also help to incentivise positive performance and deliver efficiencies.
The Operator of Last Resort, which Michael Matheson mentioned, is the government-owner operator which runs a rail franchise when the franchise agreement fails or the operator hands it back to the government. In England, both Northern and LNER services are currently run by an operator of last resort, as was ‘East Coast’ before them.
In Scotland, the situation seems to be slightly different as the Scottish Government has taken the political decision to ‘nationalise’ its railway, rather than being forced into running it by a failed or unwilling operator.
Transport union TSSA, which has a long-standing policy of promoting the renationalisation of the railways, welcomed the news. General Secretary Manuel Cortes said: “This announcement is long overdue – much like many ScotRail trains were whilst Abellio was in charge.
“I’m delighted to see the SNP have finally listened to representations from the TSSA, Scottish Labour, passengers and staff alike and announced the return of ScotRail to the public sector.
“The COVID-19 pandemic made it abundantly clear that our railways are a public service, not a piggy bank for fat cat shareholders. And Welsh Labour showed the way when they nationalised the railways earlier this year.
“The rest of the country must now follow Welsh Labour’s lead and end the Tories Frankenstein privatisation failure.”
David Sidebottom, director at the independent watchdog Transport Focus, commented: “Passengers will judge the success of the any changes on how far it meets their priorities for improvement: more punctual and reliable services, better value for money and the cleanliness of the service.
“A stable, reliable railway will be a key part in getting Scotland moving again and helping rebuild the economy. Scottish Government, Transport Scotland and ScotRail will need to work together to deliver a smooth transition and build an attractive offer that will encourage people back to rail.
“We will work with Scottish Government and industry to make sure passengers’ needs are at the heart of new arrangements and that our independent passenger satisfaction research continues to drive improvements for passengers.”