WHEN Scotland's transport minister made an emergency statement to Holyrood last November, admitting that the nation's railways were not "up to scratch", it was for many a new low for a train network already beset by crisis.

Yousaf made his statement during one of the biggest political rows over public services in living memory, and close to a four week period that saw only 86 per cent of trains arrive within five minutes of their intended time in Scotland.

The backdrop to the crisis saw Yousaf forced to take the extraordinary step of spending the day at rail stations apologising to commuters, as levels of performance came perilously close to the trigger point at which the minister could pull the plug on the ten-year deal held by Dutch owner Abellio – worth £7billion.

Trains in Britain are like the weather, something people have complained about for decades, whether its punctuality, over-crowding or the quality of the food in the days of British Rail, says Bruce Williamson, from the independent rail campaign group Railfuture.

"People always complain about the railways and British Rail was always mocked for its late travel and it's soggy sandwiches. If there was a future British Rail, I'm sure it would be the butt of the same jokes", he says.

Such attitudes were perhaps personified in the iconic 1970s sitcom, the Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, when the eponymous lead played by the late Leonard Rossiter would blame delayed trains as the explanation for his daily late arrivals in the office.

"Eleven minutes late, seasonal manpower shortages" and "seventeen minutes late, water seeping through the cables at Effingham Junction - there was a lot of Effingham and a good deal of Blindingham!" were among the excuses trotted out by Perrin after his troubled rail commute.

But with UK rail fares up 2.3 per cent this year and passengers between Glasgow and Edinburgh having to stump up £23.80 for on-peak time return tickets, against the backdrop of a winter of discontent with train services, there will be few who find the situation amusing.

The Sunday Herald spoke to industry insiders, transport experts, rail unions, MSPs, as well as those in charge of transport policy to get to the heart of what it will take to get a modern and efficient railway running in Scotland, and the UK as a whole.

For many the defining question is whether the UK's train operating companies should be renationalised nearly a quarter of a century after British Rail was privatised by John Major's Tory government?

The rail infrastructure was effectively brought back into the public sector in the early 2000s, with publicly owned company Network Rail. But now for the first time since the early 1990s sell-off, renationalisation of trains is on the political agenda, with only the Tories still fully embracing the privatised model.

There's also growing pressure on the Scottish Government to use its powers to renationalise services north of the border, while the idea has also been mooted by the devolved administration in Wales.

The Railfuture group does not take a position on nationalisation, but Williamson said public ownership in Scotland and Wales would be a game changer for the UK's railways.

"If ScotRail and the Welsh service were nationalised it would be interesting to contrast how successful the two models are. If there were drastic improvements it would increase the political pressure (on the UK)."

With rising rail fare costs now representing such a significant part of living costs for many, it's hardly surprising that renationalisation, of what many view as an unreliable service, is increasingly popular.

Controversy about parts of the UK's railways being owned by foreign based firms such as ScotRail's Dutch-owned operator Abellio and a perception of a 'rail rip-off' culture, could have contributed to the Survation poll finding last month that 58 per cent think rail privatisation has been a "failure" and 28 per cent view it as "a complete failure".

But is nationalisation really the answer to all the complaints people have about our rail services north and south of the Border?

Even critics of privatisation are not advocating a return to 1970s-style nationalisation. Professor Iain Docherty, at the University of Glasgow's Adam Smith business school, is still unconvinced by calls for nationalisation of the rail companies, and quick to point out that the infrastructure is already under state control through Network Rail. The railway system is also byzantine in the extreme.

Docherty says: "Part of rail is nationalised now and part of it is privatised. Part of it is reserved and part of it is devolved. There is a complex multi-ownership."

Docherty, also a member of the ScotRail board, challenges what he suggests are assumptions from unions and Labour politicians that full nationalisation would deliver significant improvements.

He says: "From the people that promote taking the rail companies into the public sector, I've not seen any examples from them of how that would make things better. It wouldn't automatically mean improvements."

Supporters of renationalisation have used the five years of recent state control of East Coast railway, the mainline between London and Edinburgh, as the centrepiece of their argument. The railway paid £225m to the government in 2014, the last financial year before it was reprivatised, showing the nationalised model was financially viable.

Docherty accepts East Coast was not a failure, but rejects suggestions from unions that replicating the model would open the floodgates to more funding for rail.

"Just changing the ownership would make little or no difference," he says. "We've seen examples elsewhere in Great Britain where the public sector had to take over a failing franchise.

"With East Coast, it wasn't badly run, but it wasn't fantastically better. The average profit is about two per cent."

Docherty goes onto suggest that the rail unions, which include the RMT - one of the few UK unions with genuine industrial muscle - could be a stumbling block to running a successful nationalised rail service.

"It depends on how well it was managed and how cooperative the unions were", he says.

But Scottish Tory transport spokesperson Liam Kerr insisted renationalisation would be a financial failure.

Kerr said: "Recent calls for the Scottish Government to take over the ScotRail franchise are impulsive and not based on any evidence that would suggest it would provide the improvements that Scottish passengers are urgently calling for.

“There are also serious questions about where the money for such a move would come from. No one doubts that there are difficulties facing ScotRail, and that we need to think of ways to improve the service."

However, Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, said privatisation was short changing taxpayers, who are subsidising rail companies - and some of these companies, he pointed out, are owned by overseas enterprises such as the Dutch-owned Abellio.

Cash said: "The vast majority of risk is by the taxpayer, therefore the taxpayer should get all the reward."

The RMT and its sister rail unions the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA) and Aslef, which represents train drivers, are the most consistent advocates of renationalisation.

Manuel Cortes, TSSA leader, claimed privatisation was leading to cash "leaking" out to shareholders, that could be invested in a nationalised service.

He claimed nationalisation would allow rail services to be used more to deliver groceries from supermarkets to vulnerable and isolated people in remote parts of Scotland.

Cortes said: "Rail is a lifeline for remote communities and noone should make profit out of that.

"Using Highland trains to take food and shopping from Tesco in Aberdeen and Inverness to remote places is something that's done, but could be greatly expanded as part of a social railways.

"It's taking cars off the road as well. But there is less money to do all this under privatisation as the profits go to shareholders."

Kevin Lindsay, Scottish secretary of Aslef, claimed £12 million a year was being lost to the ScotRail service due to annual shareholder payouts and that £3.3 billion had been paid out across the UK since privatisation in the early 1990s.

Lindsay said that passengers and taxpayers were "sick and tired of privateers" running rail services and claimed a nationalised network could fund improvements by taking that profit.

Scottish Labour transport spokesperson Neil Bibby, echoing the calls from unions, said: “We need a railway company that does not represent a few shareholders, but the people of Scotland."

So the ideological battle over rail ownership seems certain to continue raging with Labour and the unions pressing the SNP to use its powers to seek to renationalise services, while the Tories at Westminster resist any moves away from the privately owned model.

But Professor David Bell of Stirling University, a leading economist, suggested there could yet be a middle way, with a single company running rail services, but regulated by the state along the same lines as the National Grid.

When asked, whether nationalisation would improve services, Bell said: "Not necessarily. It would probably improve coordination, which is a big issue.

"Whether that would lead to a huge impact is another matter. Whether a regulated company could do as good a job as the state is an open question, where the state regulates but is not the owner."

Transport Minister Humza Yousaf last night restated the SNP's plan to ensure a non-profit organisation is in position to bid for the rail contract whenever it next comes up for renewal.

However, with his statement falling short of a commitment to fully back renationalising rail, Yousaf's job is likely to remain one of the more difficult ministerial posts for some time to come.

Yousaf, who last week held talks with rail unions and industry chiefs, said: “I am committed to establishing a level playing field for the public and private sectors to compete for future franchises.

"It is not enough that a public sector bid is forthcoming – any such bid must be robust and competitive. Enabling a broader range of competitors will drive up the quality of bids which is great news for rail passengers."

An Abellio spokesperson, in response, said: “We are investing £475 million in Scotland’s railways, the biggest investment since the Victorian era delivering more seats and faster journey times for passengers.

"As we have indicated previously we have no problem competing with a public sector bid should that be what the Scottish Government decides to do.”