Transport Minister Humza Yousaf has begun discussions with passenger groups, unions and political parties over options for bringing Scotland’s railways into public ownership.

Mr Yousaf said more formal meetings would be held in the new year to look at creating a full public sector bid for future ScotRail franchises amid ongoing criticism of performance under current operator Abellio.

He said such a bid could be ready for 2020 when a clause in the contract with Abellio would allow it to be broken.

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Discontent with the Dutch-owned operator has been growing amid missed punctuality targets and growing overcrowding on Scotland’s trains.

A YouGov poll of 1,134 Scots for the Times revealed a majority (58 per cent) back public ownership of the railways, while 19 per cent do not.

The same poll found a drop in satisfaction with Scotland’s rail services in recent months, down from 68 per cent to 58 per cent.

Mr Yousaf said: “This was a very open and productive meeting to set the wheels in motion for developing a credible public sector bid for the next ScotRail franchise.

“These are the first steps toward creating a public sector operator and I welcome the contributions of passenger groups, trade unions and political parties to today’s discussion. It is essential that as we begin this work, all parties and stakeholders clearly understand the powers the Scottish Government has and the way in which any public-sector operator would be required to operate.

“Collaboration is a critical success factor, therefore it is essential we put aside party politics to work towards our common goal – a railway that befits its passengers and enables Scotland to thrive.”

ScotRail released a performance improvement plan after missing the target for reliability and punctuality of 90.3 per cent outlined in its contract with Transport Scotland in October.

However, the performance of train services deteriorated in the month after the rail operator presented ministers with the proposals.

Abellio later hit back at criticism from Holyrood saying it could compete with any public bid, and that half the franchise was already nationalised through Network Rail. Charlotte Twyning, communications director for Abellio UK, said that ministers set fares and essentially determined how many seats are available and how much overcrowding existed across the network.   

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Stephen Boyd, assistant secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), said the meeting with Mr Yousaf was “constructive”.

He added: “The STUC and rail unions look forward to working with the minister, Transport Scotland and other partners over the coming months to ensure a viable public sector bid is developed.”

Scottish Labour transport spokesman Neil Bibby said: “Labour has proposed a People’s ScotRail, run for passengers – not profit. We want to see a publicly owned ScotRail at the earliest opportunity.”