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As I See it

Running a railway will be a problem, whoever is in charge

Terry Murden, Scotland's Programme for GovernmentThe poor old railway industry just can’t do right for doing wrong. There have been no end of announcements from ScotRail of new services, upgrades of facilities and investment in rolling stock. Sadly, regular cancellations, missed stops and late running trains have been occurring too frequently and have dominated the headlines.

Nicola Sturgeon looked unusually rattled during First Minister’s Questions as she responded to a volley of criticism over the government’s management of the system. Criticism is now coming from the Conservative benches as well as Labour and Liberal Democrats. Ms Sturgeon struggled to maintain her usual command of the Chamber, defending what even she admits is an indefensible under performance by the train operator Abellio.

However, criticising the First Minister, the Transport minister or the government is an easy hit. They are soft targets. They are also the wrong targets.

Government awards the franchise, it sets targets. But it doesn’t manage or run the railway. Ms Sturgeon deserves some sympathy and her own frustration is understandable.

So what is to be done?

It has to be said that railways have always under performed. There has never been a golden period when the trains always, or even regularly, ran without interruption.The pre-war railway companies lost money and had to be nationalised. British Rail was woefully inefficient and the butt of comedy routines. Private operators from Virgin to First Group have been stripped of, or lost out on, franchises.

Against this backdrop, governments have struggled to make the railways reliable, let alone profitable. As she sought some way to deflect criticism, Ms Sturgeon resorted once again to call for trains and track to be re-united. She has also said that a publicly-owned option will be considered in the next franchise round.

These may be seen as stalling tactics. After all, there is no hint that Network Rail’s operations will be devolved, and the next franchise round is four years away. Labour wants the government to implement a break clause, and Ms Sturgeon’s resistance suggests she knows that there is neither the money, nor any confidence in taking such a step.

She should also be more honest, or better informed, about her call for re-united trains and track. The ScotRail Alliance is a partnership of ScotRail and Network Rail which is is being observed by other regions as a possible model for the future. If that ain’t working, then the problems are even more deep-seated.

The reality is that ScotRail is investing heavily in renewal and that this will cause disruption. Day-to-day failures are a different matter. They need to be investigated and action taken.

But even if the industry was nationalised it would almost certainly be run by the same people. The same drivers, engineers, administrators. The management may change but they will be drawn from the same group of professionals who, like it or not, are the only people who know how to run a railway. Even if they do it badly.

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