ScotRail returns to public ownership after 25 years: Now what?

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Today, ScotRail returns to public ownership after 25 years in the private sector. After years of criticism from passengers, campaign groups, and transport unions on the apparent failings of privatisation, will the nationalisation of Scotland’s railways adequately address their grievances?

Corkerhill station. Credit: Tareq Selim

Jenny Gilruth, the transport minister, said to the Clyde Insider: “It’s a historic occasion,” adding that “bringing ScotRail passenger services under public control and ownership puts passengers and staff at the heart of Scotland’s rail services.

Jenny Gilruth MSP, transport minister. Credit: Scottish Government

This is an opportunity to deliver a railway which is for the benefit of the people of Scotland and everyone who travels by rail – customers, staff and stakeholders, not shareholders. The national conversation that gets underway this Spring will provide an opportunity for staff, passengers, and communities to have their say in how we shape Scotland’s railway and ScotRail in particular.”

ScotRail was first privatised in 1997, when the franchise was taken over from British Rail and given to National Express. This lasted until 2004, when the franchise was awarded to the multi-national transport company FirstGroup. In 2015, the franchise was then given to Abellio, a Dutch company owned by the Dutch government, funnily enough.

A year ago, the Scottish government announced that ScotRail was to be handed over to an “arm’s length” public body on the 1st of April 2022. This came after Michael Matheson, the cabinet secretary for transport, announced in late 2019 that Abellio’s franchise was to be terminated early due to mounting criticism over its performance and quality of service. The contract was initially meant to last until 2025.

ScotRail Trains Limited is the new government-owned company running the trains and it is overseen by the minister-controlled public body, Scottish Rail Holdings Limited.

Passengers should not expect any significant changes immediately. All of ScotRail’s staff and stations under Abellio’s franchise have automatically transferred to ScotRail Trains, including rolling stock. All season tickets and railcards are also still valid. The service will continue to be known as ScotRail and keep the same livery without the “Abellio” name.

Ellie Harrison, the founder of Bring Back British Rail, a group that campaigns for the renationalisation of Britain’s railways, fully welcomed the move. “I’m looking forward to seeing the back of them. I think in the long term, it is a much more efficient use of public money.  We’re not going to have a private company extracting profit from Scotland,” she said.

Bring Back British Rail protest outside Glasgow Central, August 2019. Credit: Ellie Harrison/Bring Back British Rail.

What are people hoping for from ScotRail Trains, then? And what plans do the public bodies have in store for the future?

The Rail, Maritime, and Transport union (RMT) held a demonstration outside Queen Street Station to celebrate ScotRail’s first day under public ownership but to put pressure on the new management as well. One of the union members told the Clyde Insider: “Public ownership is not a silver bullet to the problems in the railways. We welcome public ownership. Hopefully, it’s a first step to building a better railway but it needs to be backed with investment and ambition from politicians.”

Jane Ann Liston, a media spokesperson for RailFuture, an independent organisation and think tank that campaigns for better rail services, told the Clyde Insider that she would like to see “a realisation that if we’ve got any hope of reaching net zero, there has to be a big switch to get people back on the trains.

“The Scottish government has got a target for cutting [car] mileage by a fifth and [doubling] the number of rail journeys. It’s not quite clear how this is to be brought about and it doesn’t quite fit with some of the other decisions that have been taken, such as to cut the rail services significantly in some places and to cut the hours that ticket offices are open.”

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly hit ScotRail’s passenger numbers, understandably due to lockdown. While numbers have been rising above pandemic levels, passenger journeys in 2021-2022 are so far less than half of the nearly 27 million journeys taken in 2019.

Valeria Davidson, chief executive of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT), said: “As all public transport operators are aware, getting people back on quality public transport services following the COVID pandemic is very much a priority for us all.  We are already looking at more opportunities to work together and more joined up campaigns highlighting to the public all the positives of public transport.”

Ticketing has long been a contentious issue in Glasgow and the Strathclyde region, with limited options for flexible tickets, forcing travellers to buy different tickets for different modes of transport.

“I would love to see fully integrated ticketing across all transport modes,” Harisson said. “I think flat simple fares, just as simple and as cheap as possible. That’s what we need. We want to have an alternative to driving. We want to get people out of their cars.”

While SPT primarily operate Glasgow’s subway, they are not involved in train operations, instead they offer shared tickets with ScotRail and some buses, such as the Roundabout ticket and the ZoneCard.

Davidson said: “All transport operators are aware of the demands of the travelling public for better integration of ticket products and for a single-use smartcard or contactless that covers all modes of travel.”

She added that SPT is working closely with Transport Scotland in developing the smartcard technology for multi-modal tickets.

“There is no technical reason why this shouldn’t move ahead. We just need the commercial willingness of all operators who are all very aware of the public’s expectations in this regard.  It is clear that there is a very real expectation of more and better travel integration and ticket options which suit more people.”

Ultimately, Harisson really wants “to see [a] long-term vision, and we need long-term funding from the government to back up that vision.

I’d really like to see [public ownership] being celebrated. It’s ours now! And that’s really something that everyone in Scotland should be pleased about and proud of and making the most of.”

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