THE cancellation of Abellio’s contract to operate ScotRail three years earlier than planned cannot come as a surprise. It was clear – even before the chaotic performance of the summer, during which almost a quarter of trains on the Glasgow to Edinburgh route were delayed or failed to run – that the service provided was wholly inadequate.

Yet when Michael Matheson, the Transport Secretary, who has been sluggish in his response to widespread dissatisfaction from rail travellers, argues that additional public subsidy would not guarantee “commensurate benefits for passengers, communities and the economy”, he implicitly raises questions of who would improve matters, and how.

Abellio’s failures are their responsibility, and the Scottish Government and rail users are entitled to get a functioning service for hefty fares and the two-thirds subsidy, amounting to billions, currently ploughed into the system. But as the franchise holders point out, they have put £475 million into rolling stock and added 23 per cent more seats.

Undoubtedly, some difficulties have been created by factors outwith their control. There’s always the weather, but over-runs in track maintenance (the bit that is nationalised), and threats of industrial action by the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA) no doubt compounded their own deficiencies.

Some operators perform better than others – which must be the justification for competition – but in the past 18 months, four other UK franchises (East Midlands, East Coast, West Coast and Wales) have changed hands, while South Western customers, in the middle of the longest rail strike in history, are enduring a service that makes ScotRail look efficient.

If no guarantee of improvement is to be had from the operators, however, nor is it clear that renationalisation provides a magic wand. It is one of the few Labour policies that not only enjoys public support, but is seen as realistic. That may be so, but the central question is not to do with the mechanics or even the costs of taking operating companies back under public control, but precisely how improvement would be brought about.

The track record of UK public ownership was worse than that of the current operators, certainly on investment (train companies typically put as much as 98 per cent of their revenue back into infrastructure). And there is an argument that they have been challenged by their own improvements and success: the number of passengers on UK railways has roughly doubled in the two decades since privatisation, while provision has increased by only around 25 per cent.

Clearly more needs to be done. But if it is uneconomic for private operators to do more – which for passengers means the bare minimum – it’s unclear that public ownership, in and of itself, solves that problem, without some other widespread change.

That means either a rise in ticket prices or further subsidy, which in turn means higher taxes that would also affect the 40 per cent of the public who never use trains, which across much of Scotland is because they have no access to them.

The UK Government is providing increased investment in just this sort of infrastructure, and the Scottish Government’s contribution to rail is already substantial. But, with money alone, change will take years, or decades. Unless some convincing systematic reform which no one – from either the public or private sector – has yet produced is forthcoming, the tension between the number of passengers and the state of the network and rolling stock will limit the level of service. But customers and the government should nonetheless have a right to expect that that level is pitched somewhere above dreadful.

Taps off

This festive season, why not swig back a few “tap water mocktails”? That’s the advice, unsurprisingly, of Scottish Water, which claim the country’s soft water can “absorb a huge amount of flavour molecules”. They suggest chai tea, lemon zest, and strawberry or vanilla. Those of us who are not driving can, presumably, argue that it may well absorb whisky to similarly delicious effect. Slàinte mhath!