By Phil Marsh

Scottish politicians speak out on train policies – early electioneering?

Published: 28th November 2016

ScotRail becomes political football (again)

Different political parties in Scotland appear to be using ScotRail as something of a political football.

The Labour Party in Scotland has called for ScotRail fares to be frozen in price. The Scottish Conservatives have opposed possible moves to bring the railways in Scotland fully into the public sector.

Abellio has defended its record in operating the ScotRail franchise, for which it has been responsible since April 2015. The franchise could run for at least ten years but could be cut short after seven years depending on performance, a decision that under the contract would have to be taken by March 2020, a little more than a year before the next expected election to the Scottish Parliament in 2021.

The Dutch firm Abellio is in a “deep alliance” to operate the ScotRail franchise with public-sector infrastructure owner Network Rail in Scotland.

Political parties appear to be preparing for the elections to Scottish councils in May 2017 and a possible Westminster general election, if one is called before the expected next one in May 2020.

Humza Yousaf MSP, Scotland’s transport Minister, has been moved to speak out on behalf of the Scottish Government, which is in the charge of the Scottish National Party as the biggest party in the Scottish Parliament, although without an overall majority.

For the second time in the space of a week or so, Mr Yousaf issued a statement about ScotRail. He hailed investment which he described as being aimed at improvements to benefit passengers.

Mr Yousaf said: “Everyone rightly expects a railway network that operates effectively. So when things go wrong I fully understand the dissatisfaction of passengers and the inconvenience that is caused.

“Although there are no guarantees major failures won’t happen, I give my reassurance that ScotRail has learned lessons and is far better prepared for contingencies, including communication with passengers, when such incidents do take place.”

The Minister listed benefits to be delivered for passengers in Scotland:

• Acceleration of £16 million over two years to upgrade key junctions, track and signalling equipment;

• A £5 billion five-year programme to 2019 to transform Scotland’s railway;

• An extra 200 carriages by 2019: 50 per cent more carriages than in 2007;

• Investing twice as much per capita as the UK Government in the existing network;

• 70 new electric trains from 2017 providing up to 40 per cent extra seats at peak times on the main Edinburgh--Glasgow route;

• £475m for new trains and modernising the current fleet to improve reliability and comfort, providing valuable work for Scottish engineering plants in Kilmarnock and Glasgow;

• £14m of which is investment in improving the reliability and comfort of the class 158 diesel fleet, serving much of rural Scotland;

• an ambitious refurbishment programme under way across 90 per cent of existing trains; and

• increased focus at major stations on prompt departures.

 

The Minister also mentioned measures to reduce skip-stopping during peak hours, a previous practice designed to help late trains to recover some lost time.

As well as reminding people of the Performance Improvement Plan he had instructed ScotRail to work on, the Minister claimed to be acting in support of passengers.

Mr Yousaf also said: “Overcrowding is frustrating that is why, from mid-December, we have introduced more services to and from Inverness and are finalising details to provide more carriages on peak-time service on the Borders Railway.”

On his previous apparent support for a public-sector bid for the ScotRail franchise in future, the Minister said:

““For future franchises, we stand by our invitation to get round the table with anyone who has a genuine interest in taking forward work on a not-for-profit bid. This does not remove the need for competition as any bid must be tested so we can pick the best option for Scotland's passengers in an objective manner.

“Our commitment to our railways is undeniable. We want to see a vibrant, growing industry with more seats and services than ever before. I remain focused on ensuring the best outcome for passengers -- a franchise which delivers for Scotland.”

His political opponents remained unimpressed. The Conservatives continued to argue in favour of the private sector. Labour claimed that almost 50 trains a day in Scotland were being seriously delayed or cancelled and launched a campaign to freeze fares.

Meanwhile, ScotRail pointed out that it operated more than 2,300 train services a day with punctuality reaching almost 90 per cent. ScotRail indicated that timekeeping in Scotland is better than on franchises in England.

 
 
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