By Dr Kath Murray (University of Edinburgh) and Dr Colin Atkinson (University of the West of Scotland)

The recent announcement by Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf that "all options" for the devolution of railway policing will now be re-examined was widely welcomed by railway sector stakeholders and practitioners. The decision to go back to the drawing board is underpinned by the recognition that full integration is not tenable, at least not in the short to medium term. The current emphasis is therefore on finding a workable interim arrangement that satisfies the devolution of railway policing. There is also a welcome acknowledgement that should these prove satisfactory full integration may not be needed.

While the aims of devolution – greater accountability and more effective railway policing – are commendable, full integration isn’t the right route, either in the medium or longer term. If anything, the break-up of the BTP is likely to damage railway policing on both sides of the border. The strength of railway policing in Britain lies partly in its network-wide jurisdiction which cuts across legal systems and multiple police force boundaries. By the token it follows that any territorial loss, in this case Scotland, will weaken the remaining structure. There is also no evidence to suggest post-integration running costs will be lower, while stakeholders have raised concerns that the accountability may be diluted by the wholesale shift away from the current specialist structure.

So what happens next? We would argue the emphasis should now be squarely on securing a pragmatic and effective devolution arrangement. This means, firstly, achieving the benefits outlined above. Second, accounting for the complexities and interdependencies associated with cross-border railway policing. And third, conceding the sizeable risks and costs associated with full integration – and recognising that for as long as the policy remains on the table, many of these will not go away.

After a prolonged period of uncertainty for BTP officers and staff that for some, has already prompted the need to make significant career and life-decisions, we would also question whether it is reasonable or fair to keep full integration as a longer-term aim. As BTP Federation Chair Nigel Goodband recently put it "officers cannot continue to live under a cloud of uncertainty, not knowing what the future holds for them… BTP cannot tread water while continuing to meet the demands of delivering a policing service across Britain".

Looking ahead, a model that maintains a GB-wide, specialist railway police service within a robust devolved governance and accountability structure should be able to deliver effective devolution. This would allow railway policing in Scotland to be underpinned by policing values and principles set by the Scottish Government, and to build on the respective strengths of each force. From an operational perspective, more effective policing can be achieved though closer collaboration between the two forces, with new lines of accountability making BTP Scotland responsive to Scottish oversight and strategic direction. There are also opportunities to increase the transparency of the collaborative working between the two forces.

Crucially, retaining the existing single railway policing structure removes the main challenges and risks, and would significantly reduce the future burden of liabilities and responsibilities on Police Scotland and Scottish Police Authority.

That full integration is still at the planning stage after nearly three years serves as a sharp reminder of the distance between the assumptions and assurances that underpinned the original Bill and the hard realities of full integration. In other words, this isn’t the policy that MSPs voted for. While the current change in direction is very welcome, we would suggest the Scottish Government should now provide long-overdue closure for BTP Scotland officers and staff, as well as the wider railway policing sector, and scrap the merger entirely.