MINISTERS have come under fire over their decision to award the £6 billion ScotRail franchise to Abellio, part of the Netherlands' state-run rail service.

Trade unions and opposition MSPs voiced anger the tendering process was not delayed in order to allow a Scottish public sector bid to come forward.

In a second blow to their hopes yesterday, Transport Minister Keith Brown played down calls to invoke a "break clause" midway through the new 10-year contract to consider an alternative.

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Abellio will replace Aberdeen-based FirstGroup on April 1 next year and has promised a number of improvements to services.

But rail unions RMT, TSSA and Aslef, along with Scottish Labour, the Greens and Scottish Socialists, condemned the decision, claiming it had dashed hopes of taking Scotland's railways back into public hands.

The Scottish Government is expected to gain new powers allowing it to consider a public-sector rail bid as part of the devolution package being considered by Lord Smith of Kelvin's commission.

Labour's transport spokesman, James Kelly, said: "In public the SNP talk about more powers, but when faced with the opportunity to use them in the interests of Scotland they bottle it."

Mr Brown said the railways could have ground to a halt had he delayed a decision on who should be awarded the franchise.

He was later pressed by Labour and Green MSPs to use a get-out clause in the new franchise, but told them: "Who can say in five years' time what the situation is, but you have to go into these contracts with the intention of seeing through the contracts."

The announcement was welcomed by the Tories. MSP Alex Johnstone said: "The transport minister has done well to resist calls from sirens of the extreme left who would see us return to the investment vacuum and the catastrophic management failures of state-owned monopolies of the 1970s."