Scotland's union leaders have called for the country's railways to be returned to public ownership and control.

Rail unions yesterday called for a renationalisation of the railways and said Network Rail taking over train operations would be a good first step.

Their call comes just a week after The Herald revealed a private meeting had taken place between a senior Network Rail official and a senior Labour politician at which the subject was discussed. At the Scottish Labour Party conference in November last year, the pair discussed the possibility of Network Rail establishing an operating division to run the ScotRail franchise on a not-for-profit basis when the current deal runs out in 2011.

The STUC annual congress, meeting in Glasgow yesterday, backed the renationalisation call which was made by three major transport unions, the RMT, Aslef and TSSA.

Congress voted unanimously to issue "support for renationalisation of the railways".

The motion also said: "Only a fully integrated transport system, run wholly in the public interest, can fully meet Scotland's needs and this motion urges the Scottish Executive to ensure Scottish rail passenger services are run on a not-for-profit basis."

While stating his support for the motion, Bob Crow, the RMT leader, launched an attack on Jack McConnell, Scotland's First Minister, who a day earlier had addressed the congress asking them to stick with Labour.

Unions have been angered over the role of government during recent disputes.

Mr Crow said: "It was a disgrace. Jack McConnell came here looking for our support, but over the last eight years has attacked workers for going on strike.

"They have had opportunities to support us but instead look at us like a concrete necklace round their necks."

Mr Crow added: "A not-for-profit Network Rail running trains would be a first step, but we want railways under public control. It is not democratically controlled just now. It is funded by the taxpayer but they have no real say in how it is run."

The congress called for the Scottish Executive to ensure greater public accountability and integration of track and train operations.

Chris Barrie, of Aslef, said: "There has been a failure of rail privatisation. Millions of pounds of taxpayers' money is being invested in the rail industry and then being slipped into the pockets of wealthy shareholders of private firms.

"Surely a publicly owned and publicly operated Network Rail is the first step to an integrated transport network for Scotland."

The RMT challenged the SNP over the lack of a commitment to public ownership of the railways and for accepting donations from the director of a major private transport firm. Bob Crow also dismissed reports of the RMT backing the SNP as "complete nonsense".

Later yesterday, the union voted against an STUC statement endorsing Labour at the election.

Mr Crow said: "In 2003 the SNP said that passenger train services across Scotland should be taken under public control through a not-for-profit trust.

"At a time when public opinion and many of the political parties in Scotland, including Labour, are recognising that Scotland's railways should be run in the interests of passengers and not shareholders, the SNP are taking a step backwards."