It is decision time for the Scottish Government. It is time for the Government to decide whether to reward failure by extending the current Abellio ScotRail franchise until 2025, or whether to put passengers and rail workers first for once by serving notice that it will end the failing franchise at the first expiry date, in March 2022.
Parliament previously discussed the ScotRail franchise in a Scottish Labour debate, because the Scottish National Party does not have the guts to hold a debate in Government time to defend its record. In Labour’s debate, I highlighted the fact that, on every single measure of performance—including punctuality, the number of cancellations and capacity—it was a case of fail, fail, fail, despite the SNP Government having gone to every length to bail out Abellio through backroom deals to move targets and give Abellio a licence to fail.
Little did we know that that was just the start. Since that debate, the low performance record has been broken over and over again—so much so that Abellio has now breached the franchise not once, not twice but three times. The franchise has been breached on punctuality, on the number of cancellations and, unsurprisingly, on passenger satisfaction. Abellio does not even expect to hit the passenger satisfaction target for another two years, and it expects to do so then only because Transport Scotland has lowered the target. Missing the passenger satisfaction target once is a breach of the franchise. Missing it for two consecutive years is an event of default and is supposed to be ground for Abellio to be stripped of the franchise altogether. However, had Transport Scotland not lowered the target, ScotRail would be on track to miss its passenger satisfaction target a shocking five years in a row.
The record on punctuality is equally abysmal. Abellio has failed to hit its target since 2015. I give the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity this challenge: will he stand up and tell the chamber and—more important—Scotland’s hard-pressed rail passengers whether he believes that Abellio ScotRail will ever meet its punctuality target and, if so, when? I see that he is refusing to do so because, frankly, no one seriously believes that Abellio will hit the target in the lifetime of the franchise. What is the point of performance targets and a franchise agreement if the Government and the transport secretary are not prepared to enforce them?
The truth is that, despite two improvement plans and a remedial plan to improve punctuality, performance has got worse, not better, since the franchise began. Since the SNP handed Abellio the franchise in what it described as a “world-leading” deal, a shocking 75,000 trains have been cancelled—that is an average of 47 each and every day. In 2018-19, the number of cancellations increased by more than 60 per cent to an average of 74 a day.
Despite the arrival of the long-awaited new rolling stock, ScotRail’s performance under the service quality incentive regime is not much better. The scheme monitors the state of trains and stations across a range of measures including cleanliness, safety, accessibility and staffing. Abellio consistently misses two thirds of the targets that are set under SQUIRE, and it has not hit more than half since 2016, having racked up £13 million in fines.
To make matters worse, rail fares have rocketed under the Government. The price of season tickets has increased by an eye-watering 54 per cent since the SNP came to power, with the Government set to impose another rail fare hike in January. No wonder rail passenger figures failed to increase last year for the first time in decades.
The Parliament has the opportunity to deliver change. Agreement to Labour’s motion would mean that the Government would need to serve notice on Abellio and bring the failing franchise to an end in 2022, instead of extending it to 2025. Extending the franchise would reward failure and send a signal to private rail operators that, no matter how poor their performance, they will never have to deliver on their franchise targets. Ending the franchise in 2022, however, would give the Government two years to put in place a public sector operator bid.
I hope that, in that time, we will see a change of United Kingdom Government. A Labour Government would end the wasteful and inefficient franchising system altogether, repealing the Tories’ Railways Act 1993 so that we can have proper public ownership of our railways. We should bring train and track together under a single publicly owned company, with all decisions on Scottish routes being made here in Scotland.
Mr Mason clearly does not understand how rail services actually work. The services that are delivered on the ScotRail network would continue to be devolved to this Parliament. The decisions would be made by this Parliament on what services the company provides here in Scotland. That is how things work at the moment. Obviously Mr Mason has not noticed that rail services actually cross borders and do not stop at Gretna. That is why we believe in public ownership across the whole of the UK, not a continuation of private firms in England.
Even members who do not support public ownership must see that the current franchise is just not working. When it comes to the vote later today, members will have a clear choice between putting passengers first and continuing to put the profits of the privatised utilities first by allowing this failed franchise to continue.
My motion makes clear whose side Labour is on. We are on the side of the staff and their trade unions: the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, ASLEF; the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, the RMT; and the Transport Salaried Staffs Association, the TSSA. They all back Labour’s motion today because they have had enough of Abellio’s mismanagement and the Government’s inaction. We are on the side of Scotland’s hard-pressed commuters as they face the misery of delays, cancellations, overcrowding and fare hikes. Labour is on the side of passengers, not the private profiteers fleecing those passengers.
I call on Parliament to back the motion when we come to vote.
That the Parliament believes that the Scottish Government should not extend the current ScotRail franchise beyond its first expiry date in 2022.
Rail plays an essential role in the daily fabric of Scottish life, connecting communities, enabling opportunities and supporting economic prosperity.
The Government has invested a record £8 billion to improve our railways, with more services and more trains than ever before. Alongside that investment, we have set high performance standards for the rail industry—in fact, they are the highest that have been set for any franchise in the UK.
However, I recognise that elements of ScotRail’s operations have not performed to the levels that are specified and required by the Government and the franchise. That is why we have taken robust action through the contractual measures that are available to us in the ScotRail franchise to demand that improvements are delivered via the remedial plans. ScotRail is in no doubt that performance must improve in line with the forecasts that are contained in the performance remedial plans. That is a necessary step towards meeting the Government’s challenging but achievable public performance measure target of 92.5 per cent, which was set for both ScotRail and Network Rail in Scotland.
As part of the franchise, the company must be financially able to achieve that; otherwise, it will be in breach of the whole contract.
It would be wrong for us to ignore some of the wider systemic problems in our rail system. The existing franchise system is costly and complex. In my view, as I have stated before, it is no longer fit for purpose. The Rail Delivery Group has called for change to the system. Keith Williams, who is leading the current review of UK railways, has said:
“franchising cannot continue the way it is today.”
Alongside that, we have Network Rail managing our rail infrastructure and, despite receiving the majority of its funding for its operations in Scotland from the Scottish Government, it is accountable to UK ministers. That leaves us with a rail industry in Scotland that is full of dedicated people who are trying to do the right thing but who are operating in an industry that is unnecessarily complicated in its structure and which does not serve the travelling public.
The Williams review has the potential to fundamentally change our rail system for the better, and any approach that we take forward here in Scotland needs to take account of the potential changes that the review could introduce. I believe that a better system can be achieved through a public sector-controlled railway network in Scotland, ending the ritual of franchising and the uncertainty that is created for staff every time a franchise is challenged or has to be renewed. Operating in the public sector would bring a consistency of approach and ensure that rail infrastructure is aligned with passenger services. Under the current UK legislation, we have the power only to procure a franchise for the running of rail services in Scotland. Although we have secured the ability for a public sector body to compete for a franchise, it does not change the broken franchise system and it still leaves us with the complicated rail system that we currently have.
Let me be clear: the decision on the future of the ScotRail franchise will be based on a rigorous, detailed evaluation of the right thing to do for passengers, communities and the taxpayer. Simply ending the contract today would not wave a magic wand to fix the challenges that we have in our rail network. Rushing into a decision to end a franchise early, without correct due diligence, would not be in the interests of passengers or the Scottish taxpayer.
The Williams review has the potential to reform the structures of Scotland’s railways in a positive way, ensuring that passengers and communities are at its heart. I believe that that can be delivered through a public sector railway. I call on every member—including the leader of the Labour Party, who says that he wants a public sector railway service in Scotland—to vote for the Government amendment today to allow us to ensure that we can deliver that service for the travelling public. I ask the Labour leader to stand up and show some leadership—I know that that is something that he often struggles with.
I move amendment S5M-19190.2, to leave out from “believes” to end and insert:
“notes that the Scottish Government has already started the careful and necessary assessment specified in the franchise contract to determine the ScotRail contract end date; welcomes the opportunity offered by the Williams Rail Review, which was established by the UK Government, to create a sensible rail industry structure for Scotland; notes that the Scottish Government does not consider rail franchising fit for purpose, as the Review has already concluded, and calls on the Parliament to support the overdue and necessary change to full Scottish public sector control of the structure, governance and operation of the Scottish railway system.”
The debate is already getting lively—I am quite enjoying it. I will get straight to the point, as I have only a few minutes. The Conservatives will not be supporting Labour’s motion today, and I will explain why—if Labour members will chirp down for just a second and listen, please.
No member in the chamber can say that the current franchise is working perfectly for everyone in every part of Scotland, nor do I think that there is any long-term strategy for our country’s railways. However, let us look objectively at why pulling the rug from under the feet of the current operator would do more harm than good. First, we must consider the message that it would send. It would send the message that, if a company signs up to and invests billions of pounds in a franchise, the political wind can change and the contract can be terminated early. Anybody who knows anything about how rail franchises work knows that it is in the last crucial few years when you start to see the fruit of your investment.
Members should understand that this debate is not about early termination. As we have heard, the mask has dropped today. The debate is about calling for nationalisation, but the motion pretends that it is not. We know that it is about nationalisation because that is the media headline that Labour has been putting out, and because there are unions demonstrating outside the Parliament. I understand and respect that Labour want to make a political point, but nationalisation is an unfunded ideology that members on the Conservative side of the chamber are not willing to sign up to.
Let us look at what Labour is asking for. We must ensure that our terminology is accurate. The debate is not about unduly extending a franchise, nor is it about rewarding poor performance. Labour is calling for early termination of a 10-year agreement. Under the existing franchise, the taxpayer is paying 20 per cent less than under the previous franchise, but there has been a 30 per cent increase in the number of carriages, a 10 per cent increase in the number of weekday services and a 13 per cent increase in the number of railway jobs in Scotland. I would have thought that Labour members would have been grateful for that.
I am not saying that the current franchise is perfect—we would be the first to stand up and hold Michael Matheson to account when it fails. I am simply saying that we should not spend the next two years wasting time and money—up to £10 million—on a public sector bid when we should be focusing on delivering on the infrastructure that we have. ScotRail is currently under two very serious remedial notices; those are legal contractual agreements between the Government and the operator. The deadline for meeting those requirements comes after the date by which the early termination decision has to be made. To call for it now and pre-empt future performance would be short-sighted. Let us give ScotRail a go to succeed.
Some members will know—others might not—that one of the largest ever reviews of rail infrastructure in this country is going on right now: the Williams review. If it is published any time soon, we will find out whether the current franchise model will exist in the rail landscape of the future. The Scottish Government’s amendment alludes to that and contains sensible language in that regard.
However, the Scottish Government also contractually reserves the right to issue a default notice if it deems it appropriate. [
.] Will Labour members stop arguing among themselves and listen? Let us be clear that an immediate termination would require the Government to step in as the operator of last resort, but the Government is not ready to do that, in my view.
Labour wants to strip ScotRail of the franchise for no other reason than to grab a headline, but that is all about nationalisation and nothing to do with delivering Scotland’s railway. We have not heard a single word in the debate, and nor will we, about how much it would cost to nationalise our railway.
We will hold Abellio and the SNP to account, but we will do that in a measured and sensible way. I want to hear the Government’s vision—a vision that meets its objectives on delivering a railway that is fit for purpose. That is the challenge that we should be discussing today. I hope that the Government will rise to that challenge.
I move amendment S5M-19190.1, to leave out from “believes” to end and insert:
“notes that the Scottish Government has issued two remedial notices to ScotRail with a delivery deadline of 30 May 2020; understands that a no-rebasing notice to early terminate the franchise would have to be issued by the end of the calendar year; believes that the operator should be given the contractual ability to fulfil its obligations in the remedial plan; notes that the Williams Rail Review is due to report by the end of 2019; recognises that the Scottish Government reserves the right to issue a default notice and termination of the franchise at any point, and calls on the Scottish Government to propose a long-term, sustainable vision for the future of Scotland’s railways that looks beyond 2025.”
I have a number of declarations to make. I am a member of the RMT parliamentary group, a vice-president of the Friends of the Far North Line and a regular rail user; I want Scotland’s railway to be a success; and I do not support the franchising system—as we know from the east coast railway, significant profits of £800 million have gone to the UK Exchequer.
The Scottish Greens will support the Labour motion at decision time, and we support rail unions.
As a regular rail user, I have experienced the frustrations that others have experienced, but I want to introduce some balance to the debate. As elected politicians, our job is to scrutinise, but also to promote, and I would not want any of what is said today to be viewed as discourteous or as not recognising the valuable contribution of rail staff at all levels.
In the past, much of the debate has been fairly ill informed. I was part of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee delegation that visited the Network Rail and ScotRail control centre in Glasgow recently, where we sat in a room with the rail network displayed on a screen behind us. It was significant to see and have explained to us the implications of three delays and the effects that they had. One was on the east coast—with an impact on the Fife circle line in particular, given its different train speeds; another was a delayed departure from Edinburgh; and another was in the west. The significant factor, which my REC Committee colleagues will confirm, is that each of the trains involved was a cross-border train rather than a ScotRail train. However, ScotRail passengers will have felt the effects regardless.
Things such as the landslide on the west Highland line—great work has gone on there—are about monitoring. If we remove the franchise, those things will not change.
We have a briefing from Abellio—Mr Greene loyally read it out, so I will not repeat it—that talks about meeting the demand for better public transport. I do not know whether Abellio has met that demand, but the public are not interested in performance figures; they want to know that their train will turn up on time and that it will be clean.
Abellio talks about reducing carbon at the same time as passenger numbers have doubled, but 40-year-old diesel trains that deposit human excrement on the track do not set a good example.
Abellio also talks about the biggest investment since the Victorian era, but the journey times between Inverness and the central belt are the same as they were during the Victorian era.
Further, I am told that Abellio has had 42 directors and seven human resources directors and that it requires staff to work on their rest days.
“the Scottish Government has already started the careful and necessary assessment specified in the franchise contract to determine the ScotRail contract end date”.
As a member of the public sector bidder stakeholder reference group—perhaps the cabinet secretary remembers it—I might have known that already. However, I did not know that, because the group has not met this year and we have not had an update. Where are we with CalMac Ferries, for instance?
As I made clear, that group will meet again when we know the outcome of the Williams review and its implications for future structures. John Finnie should recognise that the remit of the group is not to evaluate the franchise, but to look at a public sector bid for a franchise.
I had hoped to get an update on where we are with CalMac Ferries. The group was launched with great gusto by the cabinet secretary’s predecessor, Humza Yousaf. The last meeting was a damp squib—I said that to the cabinet secretary afterwards. I get the impression that, at any time of crisis, the Scottish Government wheels out questions about public ownership and nationalisation that get kicked into the long grass. The Williams review is not long grass; it is a long and convenient siding.
My colleague Colin Smyth talked about timing. Timing is crucial, and I fear that the windows of opportunity will be lost.
The Government’s amendment calls on the Parliament to
“support the overdue and necessary change”.
Of course, the Scottish Greens support the full devolution of Network Rail, but that is for another day. This is about timing in relation to the franchise and responding to a specific and not unreasonable request from the Labour Party. It is about whose interests are being served.
Rather than being the operator of last resort, for vital public services, the Government should be the operator of first and only resort.
Since Abellio started running our trains, cancellations have increased year by year, skip-stopping has become part of everyday expectations, the punctuality of our trains has declined and—according to the consumer magazine
—passenger complaints have risen to record levels.
Under the SQUIRE regime, which is designed to fine the company for poor standards of service at our stations and on our trains, fines doled out to Abellio have averaged at more than £1 million for each of the last nine quarters.
Earlier this year, I lodged a parliamentary question to ask how much was paid out to complaining passengers. The cabinet secretary confirmed that, in the last financial year, Abellio paid £1,119,818 in compensation to passengers, up from £647,670 the year before.
In March this year, at one of his regular appearances at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, Alex Hynes, the managing director of Abellio, concentrated on the positive aspects of Abellio. Jamie Greene mentioned some of them—and, yes, there are some. Abellio has increased the number of train services and the number of seats available on its journeys, and—this is perhaps more important to the Scottish Government—it has received less of a subsidy than the previous operator. That last point might explain why the Scottish Government seems so reluctant to take Abellio properly to task for its poor performance.
Under two transport secretaries, we have had three improvement or remedial plans for Abellio. They contained 249 action points and 20 improvement measures; now, we have the current remedial plan, which has nine initiatives.
Abellio’s performance last year was the worst on our railways in 10 years; passenger compensation rose to £1.1 million; and Alex Hynes admitted in the committee that his company will not hit the targets that he agreed to by the end of the current franchise. Instead of penalising Abellio for some of the worst performances on record, why did the Scottish Government waive performance penalties and make advance payments of more than £20 million to the company?
Rather than endless initiatives and little improvement, the public want a railway that delivers the agreed level of service.
Unfortunately, I do not have time.
The Liberal Democrats cannot support the Government’s amendment, because it seems, yet again, to say what the Government says about everything: “If only we had all the powers delivered to us, we would do so much better.” We do not believe that and nor should anyone else. For the cabinet secretary to say that he will not rush into making decisions makes me almost speechless.
I turn to Jamie Greene’s disappointing Conservative amendment. Jamie Greene and I sit on the same committee but members would not think it. Month after month, the committee has heard about Abellio’s repeated failings and excuses. I cannot believe that the Conservatives want to let Abellio off the hook. In their amendment, they forget that Abellio is on not its second remedial plan but its third, and it still cannot reach its agreed targets.
The Conservatives say that we need to give Abellio another chance, but that is pathetic. They will not be thanked by long-suffering rail passengers for their inaction on the matter. We believe that the Labour motion needs to be supported, which is what we will do. If it is not agreed to, we will be letting down long-suffering passengers throughout Scotland. We believe that, as the motion says, the franchise given to Abellio should not be extended
“beyond its first expiry date in 2022.”
If that is to happen, the Scottish Government needs to give Abellio due notice to that effect by April next year. The cabinet secretary needs to warn Abellio that, considering that its managing director said that the company will not reach the required performance targets during the lifetime of the franchise, it should expect such a notice to be given.
I am disappointed in the approach taken by Jamie Greene on behalf of the Conservative Party. I do not mean to be disrespectful to him, but it is a naive approach. We should all take the opportunity tonight to support the Labour Party’s motion.
I point out to the chamber that I have a registered interest as a member of Unite the union and that I am contributing to the debate as the convener of the RMT parliamentary group. I welcome members of the RMT to the gallery.
I am also contributing to the debate because, along with many other MSPs and parliamentary staff, I want to be able to rely on our rail services. We all know that the travelling public are scunnered with our train services and the ever-increasing and more unaffordable costs. They cannot rely on trains to come on time, if at all; they do not know when they might see their stop rushing by as the train skips past it; and when they do manage to get on a train they can be jammed in like sardines.
The situation during the Edinburgh festival was simply shocking; not only were passengers uncomfortable, but the situation was dangerous. I was in Bangladesh last year and saw packed trains with passengers riding on top, which is a terrifying sight in a developing country. However, it was also terrifying to hear the first-hand accounts of friends and constituents of the crush to get on the trains during the weekend of Saturday 24 August. Frankly, it is a miracle that no one was seriously injured. That highlights the need for guards on our trains and staff on the platforms. Driver-only operated trains can become not only uncomfortably but dangerously overcrowded.
I emphasise that ScotRail’s failings are not the fault of its hard-working staff, whether they are administrative staff, drivers, ticket sellers, ticket collectors or guards. They, too, are suffering from Abellio’s failure, and they know it. No amount of spin by Abellio, telling its staff today that this debate is negative, changes that fact.
The RMT has advised ScotRail that it is in dispute over a wide range of issues, including the closure of ticket-sale windows in many travel centres, concerns raised by conductors about a reduction in safety briefings and ticket examiners being issued with machines that are not fit for purpose, causing work-related stress. At the same time, the highest-paid company director received an increase of £20,000, bringing their total salary to £305,000.
There is concern among Abellio’s staff that the company is running itself into the ground. The last available figures show that the company has been posting a loss while receiving increased grant subsidy from Transport Scotland. However, it makes sure that the Dutch state railway company is paid the interest that it is owed. In Scotland, our travelling public suffer and our taxpayers pay out while the Dutch state railway gains.
When will this farce finish? That is entirely up to the SNP Government. It could finish in 2022 with the break clause, which is in the contract for precisely this reason: when an operator is not performing, it is a chance to get rid of it and find a better option. We know that Abellio is not performing, because the First Minister said earlier this year that it is in the “last chance saloon”.
The question then arises as to which operator should replace Abellio. The Scottish Government used to be committed to a public sector bid but, as we have heard, the public sector bidder stakeholder reference group, which includes the trade unions, has not met at all this year. It should be meeting; it met under the previous cabinet secretary, and there should be no excuses.
Let us also look at the timescale for giving notice to end the franchise. Humza Yousaf said that the expiry date would be 30 September this year, but in July Michael Matheson told us that it would be in March 2020. However, that begs the question why the remedial period should end in May 2020, which makes no sense at all—unless the Scottish Government is simply going to allow the failing Abellio franchise to continue and the travelling public to continue to suffer from overcrowded trains and late, cancelled and costly services. Earlier this month, the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity said that on-going plans were in place for the provision of an operator of last resort. I ask him to say what those plans are and when they will be actioned.
Thankfully, our citizens do not have to travel on top of trains, but in a rich, developed country such as Scotland surely train travel should be cost effective, reliable and safe. The Scottish Government should remove Abellio, put people before profit and bring our rail services back into public ownership. I urge members to support Labour’s motion and reject the Scottish Government’s spin.
I am pleased to take part in the debate on rail. As members will know, I am enthusiastic about train travel and, with Pauline McNeill, convene the cross-party group on rail.
We have a very good rail system in Scotland, but there is always room for improvement. In the past eight or nine days, I have used the railway nine times and have spent about 12 hours on ScotRail trains. That has included travelling here on the Airdrie to Bathgate line, going to watch my favourite football team play at Dumbarton—where, happily, it beat Jackie Baillie’s favourite team—and, on Monday’s Glasgow holiday, having a day out to Fort William. All nine trains ran as close to time as made no difference.
In particular, we should be really proud of the west Highland line, where the quality of trains is so much better than it used to be—complete with wi-fi and charging points, and with tea, coffee and beer all on sale. Also, as a member for Glasgow, I have to say that the city has an excellent rail system.
No, thank you.
In recent years, I have visited a number of European cities, where I have always used the local trains and metro networks. I would argue that Glasgow has a much better system than those in Rome, Lisbon, St Petersburg or Marseille, to mention just a few.
That is not to say that ScotRail has not had problems. However, I would argue that some of those are teething problems, including those with the electrification and provision of new rolling stock on the Glasgow to Edinburgh lines via Falkirk and via Shotts and on the Dunblane line, and with the improvements to intercity services with the provision of upgraded rolling stock.
Recently, Queen Street station’s tunnel has been closed and the station itself is being rebuilt, with two platforms currently being extended and so out of action. The fact that most trains have continued running during this period is, I think, highly commendable, and the staff, who often have to work at night to minimise disruption, deserve our gratitude.
One of Labour’s big criticisms has been that 47 trains per day have been cancelled. That sounds like a lot, but we should remember that ScotRail runs 2,400 trains per day, so barely 2 per cent of trains have not run, while 98 per cent have.
I accept that the Scottish National Party sits somewhere in the middle, as we support a mixed economy—in contrast with the somewhat extreme positions of the Conservatives, who would prefer to privatise almost everything, and Labour members, who would nationalise every loss-making business in the land. I am sympathetic to Scotland having a publicly owned and operated railway but, frankly, it would still face problems and challenges. I remember the publicly owned British Rail, which was not a total success. It still needed a lot of public money; some felt that it was run not for the benefit of passengers but more for that of railway staff themselves; and, of course, the poor-quality food on BR was a standing joke.
We need to achieve a balance whereby the railway is first a public service, secondly a good employer and thirdly efficient and not wasting public money. We should not forget the evidence from the publicly owned Lothian Buses that we heard at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. Being publicly owned is not a factor in how it successfully operates its well-regarded bus service.
Yes, I am happy to recognise that.
We must also consider cost. We currently subsidise the railway to the tune of some two thirds, so if I buy a ticket for £20, the actual cost is more like £60. As far as I can see, Abellio is not making a profit out of ScotRail, so if we were to bring it into public ownership, we might need to increase the subsidy just to maintain the present service. Should we be increasing spending on rail? The Greens have a clear policy of building fewer roads and investing more in public transport and active travel, which is a credible position. What is Labour’s position, though? Would it cut expenditure on roads or on health and education in order to put more funding into trains?
There have also been suggestions from the RMT and others that train fares are too high and there should be no more increases. However, if there are no fare increases, presumably there can be no pay increase for the staff. Surely that is not acceptable.
Let us aim to improve our railways, but let us also be proud of the system that we have and grateful to those who make it work.
Like a stopped clock, even Colin Smyth is right occasionally, and his highlighting of the huge frustration that commuters, tourists and businesses feel when another train is cancelled, a train is delayed because it is following a stopping service through Fife or a train’s air conditioning has decided to pack in, is absolutely justified. Serious problems require serious solutions. However, like a broken record, the member comes back to the chamber six months after the previous time, offering no practical solutions whatsoever.
Let us look at the delays since 2015, which Colin Smyth referenced. Statistically, more than half of them were the responsibility of Network Rail, which is, incidentally, a publicly owned company. They were to do with the track, the signalling and the infrastructure. Over the past year, just over 40 per cent of cancellations were caused by track or signalling issues. Changing the franchisee would fail to address that. A further 10 per cent of delays or cancellations in Scotland were caused by non-ScotRail operators. Again, changing the franchisee would fail to address that.
Then there is the weather. If I recall correctly, an underlying cause of two thirds of delays in 2018 was storm Ali, and this summer, more than 60 per cent of average August rainfall fell in three hours, significantly impacting on the west Highland line, which John Mason eulogised, and the main Edinburgh to Glasgow line at Winchburgh. Changing the franchisee would fail to address that.
According to the latest performance statistics, what were the incidents that caused the most disruption to services last month? They were a passenger pulling the emergency alarm on a service leaving Glasgow central, an incident on the Forth rail bridge and an incident that required the emergency services at Falkirk Grahamston. Changing the franchisee would fail to address such incidents.
Of course, trains sometimes break down, but we must remember that the franchisee does not own the stock. It is all leased from the rolling stock leasing companies Porterbrook, Angel Trains or Eversholt, with the exception of the class 385s, which are owned by Caledonian Rail Leasing. Any new franchisee would be working with the same kit.
Admittedly, the current franchisee does its own maintenance on its 225 diesel multiple units and electric multiple units, but the same people would do the maintenance before and after any retendering. I am certain that Labour does not question the professionalism or dedication of those who do a very difficult job on increasingly aged stock. I certainly do not.
What of that stock? The current franchisee has tried to upgrade it. Twenty six refurbished high-speed trains were ordered from Angel Trains, but the ROSCO subcontracted the refurbishment to Wabtec, which failed to deliver on the contract, leading to the unrefurbished sets that John Finnie mentioned. Changing the franchisee would fail to address that.
Would changing the franchisee solve the overcrowding that Elaine Smith mentioned? It would not. To do that, we need track capacity and more trains to be available. As Labour knows well from my speech in February, in which I also showed why its plans could not reduce ticket prices, the infrastructure is pretty much at capacity. We would not change that with a knee-jerk expulsion of a franchisee.
I accept that our railway is not up to scratch, and I will not stand here and cheerlead for any of the agents that I have mentioned—especially a Government that refuses to lead or invest outside the central belt.
I will not, as I am in my last 30 seconds.
Instead of wasting time debating break clauses and models of franchise ownership, let us focus on the positive interventions and solutions that would make a difference to Scotland’s railway. The motion is short-sighted and naive and it betrays a fundamental ignorance about Scotland’s railways, much like Labour’s transport policy in general.
The current rail service delivery model is flawed, like a great many matters that are still under Westminster control. As we have heard, Network Rail is responsible for a majority of rail delays, yet it is unaccountable to the Scottish Parliament, and the Scottish Government has limited scope in relation to its operations. Now we hear that Colin Smyth and the Labour Party want to replicate that dysfunctional arrangement with Network Rail and apply it to the ScotRail franchise.
Having a Great Britain-wide nationalised company would mean that the Parliament would have no control over rail services and investment in Scotland. I support public ownership but not if it is centralised and regulated from London, which Labour claims that it wants. Labour members should speak to people in the industry who remember British Rail, because those people have told me that, back then, Scotland was often starved of investment and palmed off with second-hand rolling stock.
I agree with the cabinet secretary that the private franchise system that was put in place by Mrs Thatcher, and retained for many years by the Labour Governments under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, was certainly not satisfactory. However, having some control here in Scotland has been beneficial—the number of staff has grown from 4,779 to 5,272 and we have new services and new stations. Even under Abellio, there has been a 115,000 increase in seat numbers and 60 per cent of the fleet is electric, compared with 48 per cent at the start of the franchise. That proves why control by this Parliament and this Government can be beneficial.
However, the ScotRail franchise is not operating in the way that we would all wish it to. Again, that is a problem because of the legislation that we have inherited. Until 2016, the ScotRail franchise could attract only private company bids because public bids were specifically forbidden under UK statute, despite what Labour has argued in the past. The Labour Party would like to keep that quiet, along with the fact that the Labour-led Welsh Government has contracted the rail service of Wales to private French and Spanish-owned firms.
The Railways Act 2005 that was passed by Labour extended devolved powers to include management and monitoring of ScotRail services, and the power to secure future ScotRail franchises. However, there was no power to include public sector bids until 23 May 2016, when the Scotland Act 2016 came into force. That was 19 months after Abellio won the bid in October 2014.
Unlike Labour, the SNP has fought for the inclusion of public sector bids in the Scottish rail franchise for years. Our 2015 general election manifesto included a commitment that
“public sector organisations should be able to bid to operate rail services, as allowed in EU law but currently prevented by UK legislation.”
The 2016 Scottish Parliament election manifesto said the same thing.
The UK Williams review is on-going and there is a real opportunity and solid reasoning to change the structure of rail service delivery in Scotland. That rail service delivery must be devolved in its entirety, so that Scottish ministers can take a joined-up approach to delivering it with full control and full responsibility. Anything less will not meet the expectations of the 100 million passengers in Scotland who use the service annually.
The Scottish Government’s £18 million investment, independent oversight, the performance remedial plan and associated Donovan review stand to improve resilience. The fact is that more drivers, better timetables and a fleet of modern trains are contributing to a service that is improving after a period of, admittedly, unacceptable disruption in 2018.
Of course, we must scrutinise Abellio’s performance. Financial penalties and a break clause can be implemented should Abellio fail to remain on track in delivering the 19 remedial plan targets by June 2021.
I call on members across the chamber to allow remedial plan performance outcomes and the Donovan and Williams reviews to take their course, and I ask that, prior to 31 March 2020, the Scottish Government update members on those matters at that juncture. To Labour, I say get on board with the common-sense approach of handing over full control of the rail infrastructure to Scotland, to help ensure that we deliver for all our passengers.
It is customary at the outset of speeches for us to thank those who have taken the time to supply briefings to members ahead of debates. I thank the rail unions for their briefings. However, it was remiss of the minister, Joan McAlpine and the Tories not to thank Abellio for its briefing, given that they have so faithfully adhered to it this afternoon.
Today, Parliament has an opportunity to stand up for Scotland’s hard-pressed passengers, after years of a failing ScotRail franchise and misery for commuters. We can decide today that enough is enough—that the Abellio ScotRail franchise will reach the end of the line in 2022, that it will not be renewed or extended for another three years, that the interests of passengers must come first, and that our rail services must be returned to the public sector at the earliest opportunity.
We face a simple choice between public transport that is run as a public service in the public interest, or continuation of the ScotRail shambles and the Government’s failing deal with Abellio. Abellio has had four and half years to deliver what it promised at the outset of the deal, but it has not done so, even though the SNP said that the deal would be “world leading”.
Contractual targets have been missed. As Mike Rumbles said, there have been three improvement plans since the franchise began, but improvements have not been sustained. Because passenger satisfaction has fallen so far short of the remedial plan target, the target has been reduced. As has been said, 75,000 trains have been cancelled since Abellio took over the franchise, which is an average of 47 every day, and industrial relations have worsened.
I know that the SNP and the Tories are opposed to our motion, but let us listen to the people who work on our railways. The RMT, which has been demonstrating outside Parliament today, says that Abellio is “not fit” to run the ScotRail franchise and that
“mismanagement has led to a serious deterioration in working conditions”.
The TSSA says that the franchise is a “shambles” that has
“gone from bad to worse”.
The general secretary of ASLEF has said that the Abellio deal has
“been a failure by nearly every measure” and went on to say that
“ScotRail receives the second highest share of net government funding of any franchise in the UK. It is impossible to see the franchise as offering anything other than terrible value for money for the Scottish taxpayer and passenger.”
The Abellio deal is not working for passengers, does not carry the confidence of workers and does not represent value for money for taxpayers. In fact, the travelling public are paying twice for the SNP’s dysfunctional deal with Abellio, because as well as paying some of the highest rail subsidies in the UK, they are paying for rising fares. People are paying more for a service that is not consistent enough and is just not good enough.
Scotland’s passengers deserve better: they deserve rail services that are democratically controlled and run in their interests. The cabinet secretary and other SNP members have said that their amendment is about Scottish public sector control of the railways, but it is not: it is about Dutch public sector control of the railways continuing for three more years. If the Governments of Germany, France and Italy, to name just a few, can run their national railways, and if the Dutch Government can run our railway, we can and must do the same in our country.
Scottish Labour believes, as a matter of principle, that the railways should be brought into public ownership at the earliest opportunity. Even those who do not accept that principle surely cannot believe that Abellio has earned the right to have the deal extended, and certainly not until 2025. If they believe that, either they cannot be among those of us who actually travel by train regularly or they are totally out of touch with Scotland’s passengers.
It is time to bring the Abellio deal to an end. It is time for a publicly owned people’s ScotRail that is under democratic control, is fully integrated with our public transport system and puts passengers before profit. That is the future that Labour chooses for our railways, and that is why I will vote for the motion.
We all know that the performance of the service on Scotland’s railways is far from satisfactory. Delays, cancellations and mismanagement have led to commuter misery and economic damage. It is estimated that train delays cost the Scottish economy up to £230,000 a day.
In my constituency, poor performance is hindering efficient commuting, and is damaging the local economy as a result. On the Borders railway line, which many of my constituents use daily to commute to and from Edinburgh, we have seen some of the worst delays and cancellations.
Just last week, we learned that ScotRail’s punctuality for August and September was at its worst since Abellio took over the franchise in 2015. That was unsurprising and all too familiar news.
The Scottish Conservatives have made it clear in the past and today that we do not want renationalisation of Scotland’s railways; that is not the solution that we seek. Labour has called for renationalisation on numerous occasions. That move would not benefit taxpayers in the slightest. It would waste time and money, it would not get people to work on time and it would not stop ordinary people being fined for picking up their children late from nursery. The idea of renationalising our railways is a mere sticking plaster.
Michael Matheson said that the Government is taking “robust action”, but I must question that. We need better accountability, and the SNP must stand up for commuters, rather than give ScotRail a continuing licence to fail. The Government must stick to its promises and hold ScotRail to account properly. Remedial plans will be effective only if the transport secretary ensures that ScotRail is committed to the improvements, and that it is questioned if it does not improve. There can be no more ministerial waivers. We need better accountability, because commuters deserve better.
We have known that driver recruitment has been a significant issue for months, but action has been taken only recently. To have a sustainable rail service, we need to ensure that Abellio ScotRail continues to assess workforce levels.
We have come to the chamber and have repeatedly been promised improvements, but little changes for the better. In relation to the Borders railway line, I was promised that once the driver training backlog was cleared we would see improvements in punctuality and to the service. There was a short-term improvement, but the service has gone back to the same old.
The Conservatives call on the Government to propose a long-term sustainable vision for Scotland’s railways beyond 2025, which would include improving the rolling stock. We need a long-term plan, so that whatever the operator, there is a clear direction in practice, and passengers can be confident that long-term improvement is on the way.
Commuters and passengers want greater transparency and accountability. Let us be clear—a public sector operator taking control of the ScotRail franchise would shift huge risks and potentially millions of pounds of spending on to the Scottish taxpayer. That increased risk would come without any guarantee of improvement in the quality of the service.
Does Rachael Hamilton not realise that, when the east coast main line came back into public service, we got a better service, better industrial relations and £1 billion delivered to the Treasury as a result? Is not that why we should bring the railways back under national control?
I completely disagree. That happened in unique circumstances. We are at the point of taking action as set out in the remedial plan. There is also positivity on the horizon as a result of the Williams rail review that Neil Findlay is overlooking. Incidentally, that review provides clarity on where this Government needs to focus attention and where to make improvements, including by delivering value for money and clear accountability, and by putting customers at the heart of rail services. Customers are not mentioned in the chamber often, but today it is all about customers. They need to be at heart of the improvements.
The Conservative amendment aims to give ScotRail the chance to try to fully implement the action that is set out in the remedial plan, rather than terminate the franchise early.
Nobody can argue that ScotRail has performed perfectly since it has had the contract. It has problems and issues, but that was the case with the services long before Abellio got the contract.
No, it is not—I am not saying that it is all right. In any type of organisation, there will always be issues and problems. The issue here is how one works to rectify them. Given the situation that passengers face day in, day out, I understand why they can be and are angry and frustrated. I was talking to Claire Baker only a couple weeks ago about rail issues, and she highlighted some of her concerns about train services in Fife.
I genuinely appreciate that there are challenges, but every organisation has challenges. What matters is how they work to address them and make their service delivery better.
Labour’s motion today calls for one thing: not extending the franchise beyond 2022. Unfortunately, Colin Smyth is leaving the chamber, but he indicated in his speech that he is against fare increases. Does that mean that Labour is announcing that if it were ever to be in power in this Parliament, it would never institute a fare increase on ScotRail ticket prices? It sounded like that to me. I would be genuinely grateful if Labour could deal with that point when it closes.
I do not know whether any Labour Party politician will refer to this, but the party has acknowledged that the average increase in prices in Scotland has been lower than it has been in England and in Labour-run Wales. Can any Labour member explain why their colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government chose to mirror the English fare rises of 2.8 per cent, despite having the power to apply a cap for Wales-only journeys?
I want a commonsense approach to bring infrastructure and services together under public control. It is essential that responsibility for our railways rests with the Scottish Parliament, and that all the railways are brought under Scotland’s full control. As every member knows, Network Rail is currently unaccountable to this Parliament. More than 50 per cent of ScotRail’s delays were attributable to the UK Government’s shambolic operation of Network Rail.
The cabinet secretary’s amendment indicates that the Scottish Government has already started the careful and necessary assessment that is specified in the franchise contract. In its closing comments, can Labour clarify whether it just wants this due process to be ripped up? I genuinely could not be sure from what was said earlier.
I agree with the Scottish Government that franchising is not fit for purpose, and I would like to see our rail system under full public control. I welcome former Labour minister Tom Harris urging that
“all lines, signals, stations and infrastructure under the control of Network Rail should be transferred to a new body, answerable to the Scottish Government.”
That highlights the challenge that exists for us all, but also the opportunity: to bring control over all aspects of the rail service to this Parliament.
Elaine Smith talked about nationalisation, but it is clear that we do not have the power to nationalise the railways. Under current UK law, those powers still reside in Westminster, and the Scottish Government is obliged to competitively tender for delivery of rail services.
Labour continually pretends that we can nationalise rail services, but we cannot. If Labour stops misleading the population about that point, I am sure that we can all have a conversation that is based on facts, not Labour’s fiction.
Let me try to start on a consensual note. It is clear that we all agree that ScotRail is underperforming and could do a lot better. The fact that the Scottish Government has issued two remedial notices to ScotRail is a clear indication that it is not delivering for rail passengers.
Unlike the Labour Party, we believe that ScotRail must be given the opportunity to fulfil the terms of those remedial notices. As we heard from Liam Kerr, Labour’s continuing calls to end the franchise will not solve the problem. I believe that the motion is rather cynical. It does not say what the Labour Party will do to solve the problem, and that is not helpful. However, its members articulated that today when they said that they believe that nationalisation would be the solution. Labour did not mention that in the motion, so that it could get the Liberal Democrats to support the cause.
Nationalisation is the wrong way to go. We all know that it does not work. It has been tried before and it failed. I say to Mr Leonard that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is, at best, unwise.
As my colleague Rachael Hamilton said, we also know that a public sector operator taking control of ScotRail would shift on to the Scottish taxpayer a huge risk that would be based on civil servants running a business without the knowledge or expertise to do so. Let me be clear: civil servants cannot make rented rolling stock more reliable, nor can they magic more stock from a finite pool held by rental companies, as we heard from Mr Kerr. Further, civil servants cannot generate more investment from the Government that they report to.
Also, it is not blindingly right to call on Network Rail in Scotland to be devolved to the Government. That will not solve the problems. Network Rail is not the sole issue.
The Government often takes the opportunity to quote the Office of Rail and Road’s findings that Network Rail was the overall cause of 58 per cent of ScotRail delays last year. That is the figure that it gives us, but let us dig a little deeper. If we take out delays due severe weather and track incursions, which no one controls, we see that delays attributable to Network Rail fall to around 42 per cent. That is still too much, but it is a huge shift in the balance.
We accept that ScotRail is at fault for some delays. In the past year, delays caused by problems with its fleet have increased by more than 30 per cent and delays caused by problems with its train crew have increased by 50 per cent. Those are ScotRail’s problems and ScotRail must solve them, as it has been asked to do under the remedial plan. However, blaming everything on Network Rail or ScotRail is disingenuous.
I am afraid that I am in my last minute.
I believe that everyone—Network Rail, ScotRail and politicians—needs to step up to the plate. Now is not the time for more threats to ScotRail and Abellio. Now is the time for the Scottish Government to continue to work with ScotRail and Abellio to improve their performance, and it is time to begin work on a long-term sustainable plan for Scotland’s railways beyond 2025.
The Scottish Conservatives want to look at the long-term future of our railways, which is not furthered by the Labour motion. We need that long-term vision, which the Government has not articulated. We also need effective management—something that has been missing in the past few years.
This party will not be supporting the Labour motion or the Government amendment, because they are about politics, not what is best for our railways, which is what we are interested in.
Like many members, I will begin by recognising the outstanding work of staff in the rail network in Scotland. I was struck by the point that was made by John Finnie about the challenges that have been faced in recent months, including the problems on the west Highland line following the significant damage that was caused to the line just south of Crianlarich. When I visited the site, I met the Network Rail employee who walked the line that night on his own because he suspected that damage had been caused—I know that Mr Finnie has met him, too. His action resulted in a potentially serious incident being averted. In itself, that demonstrates the dedication of the excellent staff that we have throughout the network in Scotland.
Yes, I do, because it is important that we have the right staff in place at stations to support the public, whether they are travelling by rail or any other means.
The dedication of the staff has helped to deliver the electrification of our lines, the building of the new stations, the manufacturing of our new trains and the provision of passenger services, and I acknowledge the sometimes challenging work that they undertake on our rail system.
Listening to the comments in this debate, I suspect that there are few people who believe that the franchising system that we have at the moment is the optimal one and should be continued. I certainly do not believe that it is. I think that it has to go. Just to lodge a bid—not to secure a bid—costs in the region of £10 million. Even though we have secured the power for a public sector body to be able to bid for a franchise, the process will cost that body £10 million. That, in itself, suggests that the existing system is not fit for purpose.
In my engagements with Keith Williams, I have been struck by his genuine commitment to look at how he can improve the rail system not just in the UK but, specifically, here in Scotland. The UK Government needs to genuinely recognise that there is an opportunity to run the network in Scotland in a different way that will reflect the needs and aspirations of the people of Scotland.
Rachael Hamilton called for a long-term plan to be put in place, but part of the challenge in delivering such a plan is the very franchising structure that we have in place at present. The 10-year period in which the franchises operate creates a fracture in our ability to get the long-term plan that will be absolutely critical to delivering the changes that are necessary in the future.
I turn to the issue that was raised by Elaine Smith, who said that events on 24 August were unacceptable. She is absolutely correct—they were completely unacceptable, which is why a full review was undertaken to address why the events took place. Our rail network has managed major events before and done so very well. Network Rail staff worked extremely hard to get the two platforms at Queen Street extended in time for the festival so that they could increase train capacity by some 20 per cent over that period. We should recognise the work that they undertook to deliver that.
No—I apologise, but I do not have time. I more than happy to engage with Elaine Smith at some other point on that issue.
Tonight is an opportunity for the Labour Party to put its rhetoric aside and to step up to the plate and support the possibility of creating a public sector rail service here in Scotland. It should not seek to create a UK-based body that would run all the UK’s rail network, run trains and take powers away from this Parliament, but seek powers for the Scottish Parliament to run a public service railway.
Tonight at 5 o’clock, we will find out what the leadership of Richard Leonard is really about. Will he support the Tories in voting against the ability to run a public service railway in Scotland or back the Scottish National Party, which wants this Parliament to have the ability to do so? Given his record as a leader, I know that he will back the Tories and walk away from having a public service railway here in Scotland. We will stand up for it. We will deliver it. Give us the powers to do it and we will make a difference to Scotland’s travelling public.
This afternoon’s debate has made clear the utter failure at the heart of Scotland’s railways and, in particular, the complete lack of any answers from the Scottish Government and the cabinet secretary as speaker after speaker exposed the extent to which the Abellio ScotRail franchise is letting down Scotland’s rail passengers.
Elaine Smith described the “dangerous” chaos that we saw on the trains during the last day of the Edinburgh festival. Neil Bibby highlighted the need for the Government to start to listen to the people who work on our railways and deliver the service to customers. To be fair to Liam Kerr, he provided a scathing assessment of the utter failure of the railways under privatisation.
It is clear from the debate that passengers across the country are being let down, not just by the franchise but by a Government that is more concerned with making excuses for Abellio than delivering better services for passengers.
We have certainly had our fair share of excuses today. The cabinet secretary told us—with the full support of every Tory speaker—that we should forget the last four years of the franchise because the remedial plan will improve punctuality and reduce cancellations, delivering where not one but two improvement plans have failed.
It is ScotRail’s “last chance saloon”, according to the First Minister. However, punctuality is now lower than it was when the cabinet secretary agreed the plan in February, and the latest cancellation figures are the worst for that period since records began. What about the second remedial plan on passenger satisfaction, which the cabinet secretary talked about? The Government accepts that it will not deliver the franchise target, so it has just decided to reduce the targets instead.
Passengers deserve better, but it is clear from today’s debate that the SNP wants to extend the franchise to 2025, something that, to be fair, the transport secretary admitted when he wrote to me and said that he
“fully expects the current franchise to continue” until then.
It seems that the SNP has an ally in the Tories when it comes to giving Abellio another licence to fail. The Tory amendment fundamentally misunderstands what we are voting on today.
Of course Abellio ScotRail will have a chance to complete its remedial plan if Labour’s motion is agreed to, because that plan runs to May 2020, but the first exit date in the franchise is not until March 2022. I hope that the remedial plan gets Abellio ScotRail out of breach of the franchise, but we know that it will not deliver the franchise targets that it has been set and, frankly, that is not good enough. Tory MSPs must never come to the chamber again and shed crocodile tears for Scotland’s rail passengers because, today, every single one of them has had the opportunity to do something about it, but every one of them bottled it. Faced with a choice between the big rail firms and their constituents, Tory MSPs—true to form—backed the rail bosses, put their profits ahead of passengers, and sided with the SNP to extend the failed franchise until 2025.
The SNP has tried to pretend that it supports public ownership—at least, it did for five minutes, until John Mason got to his feet and rubbished that. If the SNP were committed to public ownership, it would end the ScotRail franchise at the earliest opportunity and get serious about a public sector bid. It would recognise that, ultimately, we need an end to the wasteful and inefficient franchising system altogether, and it would back Labour’s calls for the repeal of the Railways Act 1993 so that we can have proper public ownership of our railways and bring track and train together, with services delivered by a publicly owned company. Crucially—the cabinet secretary continues to mislead people on this—decisions on all Scottish routes would be made by the Scottish Parliament and the Government would have a seat at the table when it came to cross-border services. It is clear that the cabinet secretary does not want that.
That is Labour’s vision for our railways. It is a vision that starts to put passengers first, not the profits of the privatised companies, and a vision in which the workforce is the manager of change, not its casualty, and in which our public services start to serve the people, not the profiteers.
It is time for the Parliament to get on board with that vision, to stop acting as a cheerleader for privatisation, and to unite to fight for a railway that is fit for purpose.