RAIL privatisation was one of the most ideologically-driven acts of John Major’s Conservative government. Not a single country elsewhere in the world has chosen to copy Britain’s model of extreme fragmentation of responsibilities between so many companies.
This fiendishly complex structure, and Tony Blair’s decision upon assuming office in 1997 not to deliver the “publicly owned, publicly operated” railway he previously promised, meant that the railways were an afterthought in the devolution legislation, a hasty compromise cobbled together by then Scottish Office Minister Henry McLeish that gave the nascent Scottish Executive limited advisory powers over rail.
In 2005 I was appointed by the Labour chairman of Holyrood’s local government and transport committee to act as expert adviser for the committee’s inquiry into rail devolution. At that time there was close cross-party working to scrutinise the transfer of responsibility for letting the ScotRail franchise and funding of rail infrastructure to the Scottish Parliament.
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Although many people, myself included, wanted this devolution to go further so that Scottish ministers could determine the structure of the industry to best suit Scotland’s needs, there was consensus that the limited transfer of power on offer remained worthwhile.
In 2006 I was appointed by the Liberal Democrat transport minister to a non-executive position on the board of the newly formed Transport Scotland and, over the next four years, I watched how the agency used its powers to promote and invest in the railway, including kick-starting the electrification of the Edinburgh-Glasgow mainline, and to develop the performance regime for the ScotRail franchise, one of the most demanding of any in Britain.
At present, thanks to a contract between my university and Abellio, I am a non-executive director of the ScotRail operating board at which I support the efforts of people from across the industry to deliver the modernised railway Scotland needs. After more than 20 years of researching and writing about transport policy and advising those making the decisions about how and where to invest, I have never seen a more toxic political environment for Scotland’s railways than at present.
The Transport Minister, Humza Yousaf, has made an urgent statement on the future of ScotRail after its recent performance difficulties.
The reasons for these difficulties are complex: they include the impacts of the present unprecedented level of investment in enhancing the rail infrastructure, the knock-on effects of the Queen Street tunnel renewal and the fact that significant numbers of trains are out of service, being upgraded as part of the franchise commitments.
But to read the comments of opposition politicians you would know none of this.
They criticise the operating company over aspects of the railway it is not responsible for and lambast Scottish ministers for the performance of Network Rail, which is fully reserved to Westminster.
It would be polite to describe this as duplicitous. Successive UK governments could have transferred full responsibility for rail to Scotland but purposefully chose not to.
Proponents of nationalisation, which is perfectly feasible in principle, conveniently ignore the fact that the infrastructure half of the railway is already nationalised and overspends by an estimated 30 per cent or more, whilst the average profit margin of private train operating companies across Britain is around two per cent.
We have a situation where Labour and Conservative MSPs are criticising their own policies on the structure of the rail industry in a crass attempt to take a ministerial scalp.
This is simply the worst form of politics, disregarding the impact on the thousands of frontline people who work hard to deliver Scotland’s railway service, on the passengers they serve and on the taxpayers who fund the system.
It needs to be called out for what it is and should be replaced by a sensible, mature debate on how we manage our railways to deliver the economic, social and environmental progress we require.
Iain Docherty is Professor of Public Policy and Governance at the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow.