As one joker put it last week, fans of nationalised railways have the good news they were hoping for: state management of Scotland's railways. The bad news? The state in question is the Netherlands.

Abellio - a subsidiary of the Dutch state-owned railway - will take over the lucrative ScotRail franchise from next April, ousting Aberdeen-based FirstGroup which has held the contract since 2004. But what difference, if any, will the change of operator make for train passengers in Scotland and is the new franchise good value for passengers and taxpayers?

As with all rail franchises in the UK, with the temporary exception of the East Coast mainline service, the new ScotRail franchise will be run on a commercial basis, although Abellio Group's chief executive Jeff Hoogesteger has promised that profits will be re-invested in the Scottish rail network.

Last year Abellio and FirstGroup had both been shortlisted to win the single biggest contract overseen by the Scottish Government, along with National Express, German-owned Arriva and the Hong Kong transport operator MTR.

Transport minister Keith Brown said that Abellio's bid had been the most cost-effective of those received, but that the decision had not been made purely on the basis of cost.

The bids had been evaluated by Transport Scotland, the body responsible for infrastructure projects, under a new approach which measured the value of bids with a weighting of 65% for price and 35% for quality. Policy objectives stipulated by the Scottish Government included environmental performance, passenger satisfaction, quality of service and value for money.

Transport Scotland said: "Abellio's bid came first on quality as well as first overall and provided the most advantageous balance of quality and price for passengers, staff and taxpayers, therefore proving the best value for money."

Neither Abellio nor Transport Scotland has revealed how much Abellio will receive in subsidy each year to run the franchise, although a spokeswoman for Transport Scotland said it will be less than FirstGroup received. Abellio is expected to receive around £6 billion in turnover (revenue and subsidy) over the 10-year franchise. FirstGroup received £2.5bn in subsidy from the Scottish Government over the lifetime of the previous 10-year contract, but this is likely to drop when Abellio takes over in April, following Finance Secretary John Swinney's Budget announcement last week that rail services will see a £46m cut in support to £331m a year.

The decision brings to three the number of unsuccessful bids FirstGroup has made for UK rail franchises. In May, FirstGroup was stripped of the Thameslink franchise, as well as the overnight Caledonian Sleeper service.

Christian Wolmar, one of the UK's leading transport commentators, said the decision to take the franchise away from FirstGroup had come as no surprise to industry insiders. The company has for some time been servicing huge debts, Wolmar said, and was not in a good position to absorb losses if things went wrong with the ScotRail franchise.

Wolmar also said the factors that make a real difference to the quality of a passenger's journey - in particular, the quality of rolling stock and railway tracks - have little to do with franchise holders as the big infrastructure investment decisions are largely in the hands of governments, Network Rail and train leasing companies. Nevertheless, franchise holders are often able to influence the design of new or refurbished trains.

"Changing operators often does not make a massive difference, but they can make a difference when it comes to the little things that help passengers, such as the number of staff at stations and the level of customer service."

Wolmar said FirstGroup has done a "reasonably good job" in operating the ScotRail franchise over the last 10 years, raising passenger numbers by more than 25% since taking over from the previous franchisee, National Express, in 2004.

Although Abellio has a good reputation for community engagement, Wolmar pointed to patchy performance across the firm's franchises in England. Its service in East Anglia is unpopular with many users because of poor punctuality and its Northern Rail franchise drew the ire of passenger groups this summer by adding new restrictions to off-peak fares on several routes.

Wolmar said of this latter move, which hit service users in the north of England: "[Abellio] had been asked to find savings by the Department of Transport and they decided to find the money this way, although they had other options, and it caused a lot of dissent."

Wolmar said that Abellio's decision to introduce budget airline-style advance fares of £5 between Scottish cities was innovative and would help to offset the fact that walk-on rail fares at peak times in the UK are "pretty much higher than anywhere else in the world".

The new ScotRail franchise will see Abellio run almost all of Scotland's internal passenger trains for at least seven years, with the possibility of the contract being lengthened by mutual consent in 2020 to 10 years. A break clause can be invoked after five years.

By December 2017, by which time work to electrify a number of lines between Glasgow and Edinburgh will be largely complete, 80 new electric trains will be brought into service. Abellio is negotiating with the Japanese manufacturer Hitachi, which is expected to build the new trains. Abellio will then lease the trains from a leasing company. The contract will also see almost a quarter more carriages being brought into use across the network.

In addition, 27 diesel intercity 125 trains, previously in use in other parts of the UK, will be refurbished and brought into use by December 2018 on the routes between Aberdeen, Inverness and the Central Belt.

The decision to introduce "proper" trains on these routes and bring in more frequent services between Scotland's cities has been welcomed by Ross Martin, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development & Industry. But at First Ministers' Questions on Thursday, Labour leader Johann Lamont rounded on Alex Salmond over the government's decision to "settle for decades-old trains".

Transform Scotland has welcomed the longer and faster diesel trains, but has warned that considerable investment in the train tracks to Aberdeen and Inverness will be necessary to allow the high-speed trains to run at anything approaching their full potential.

Aberdeen, Inverness, Perth and Stirling stations will all see investment in retail development schemes, though it is not clear from Abellio's statements how passenger comfort will be improved.

Abellio also plans to introduce what it calls a "Great Scenic Railway Scheme" designed to make travel to the north, the south-west and the Borders more attractive to tourists than the cramped two- and three-carriage trains used on many rural lines.

Details are also sketchy over what Abellio calls its "proper first-class offer for business travellers".

Another improvement will be the roll-out of smart ticketing which will enable passengers to buy tickets online and download them to smartcards, similar to London's Oyster Card system. Passengers will also be able to use an app that will send barcoded tickets to mobile phones or home printers. Regulated fares for the new franchise will rise in line with inflation or less and reduced fares will be offered for jobseekers and those newly in work.

Other improvements promised by Abellio include free Wi-Fi on all trains, better care for passengers delayed for more than an hour and the installation of 1000 extra car parking places and 3500 extra cycle spaces at stations and bike-hire facilities. Electric car charging points will be installed at 50 station car parks and waiting rooms will be refurbished and improved at more than 40 stations.

ScotRail's workforce of 4700 employees have been promised no compulsory redundancies over the lifetime of the contract and the protection of pension and travel rights. Abellio has also pledged to pay all staff and subcontractors a living wage, to create at least 100 apprenticeships and to guarantee trade union representation on every board meeting.

John Carson, a former director of maintenance at Network Rail, said that as the financial detail of the franchise has not been released it is "almost impossible for the public to judge whether it is a good or bad deal".

"From the information that has been made available, I can't see anything that would lead me to think that Abellio is a good or bad choice," he said.

The fact that the general public has no way of comparing the winning bid with alternative bids means that "it is hard to see what extra services Abellio are offering that were not offered by others".

Many of the promised improvements, such as the introduction of new electric trains between Edinburgh and Glasgow, would have happened regardless of which firm won the franchise, as part of the ­Edinburgh-Glasgow Improvement Programme.

Scotland has some of the most dramatic railways lines in the world with one route, the West Highland Line, regularly voted one of the most scenic in the world. But many of the routes that survived the Beeching cuts of the 1960s were run on shoestring budgets with minimal investment in both track and rolling stock for the rest of the 20th century. Even now, many rural lines are single track and only one quarter of the 2800km of Scotland's railway lines are electrified, a far lower proportion than most developed countries.

The last decade has seen a wave of new investment in Scotland's railways particularly in the Central Belt and this, taken together with the improvements that Abellio has promised to implement, could lead to a real renaissance for the country's railways in the years to come.