Brian Monteith: Nationalising British Rail is the route back to bad times

Scotrail trains arrive and depart  from Waverley Station, Edinburgh

Scotrail trains arrive and depart from Waverley Station, Edinburgh

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If the Labour Party in Scotland wishes to find a way back from its political torpor that has been borne out of repeated humiliation at the polls, then it is going about it the wrong way.

The latest idea, passed at its conference held over the weekend, to renationalise the railways in Scotland betrays a weakness for easy headlines that would only make existing problems worse, damage further the already weak public finances and move the party away from the centre-left to the delusions of ultra-left student and trade union politics.

Why do so many Scottish politicians choose to go forward into the past in their persistent quest to turn our country into Cuba without the sunshine?

There is a great deal of ignorance surrounding our railways and this feeds into an asinine simplicity of sound bites and sloganeering that requires to be corrected. Firstly, the track is already in public hands, owned and operated as it is by Network Rail.

There is a continuing debate if this is the best business model for railways, with some industry specialists arguing that track, train services and rolling stock should in most cases be owned by a single railway company so that they own their routes and the assets that go with them.

Leaving that aside for another day, the point that needs to be recognised is that many of the delays that are experienced by ScotRail customers are not caused by poor management, staff disputes or outdated rolling stock – but by the publicly owned rail network. State ownership is in many cases causing private delays. The idea therefore that taking ScotRail into public ownership would be a panacea for rail travellers’ complaints does not make rational or logical sense. Who owns ScotRail would not make a faulty points or signaling system suddenly work better.

Secondly, ScotRail is not the only operator in Scotland, there are others such as Virgin Trains, which operates express services south from Aberdeen, Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh to England, and CrossCountry, which runs the longest direct route in the UK, from Aberdeen to Penzance. Unless I am mistaken, the Labour proposal is not to renationalise these train operators that are based outside of Scotland, where the Scottish Parliament has no jurisdiction, revealing an inconsistency that suggests the detail has not been thought through. Indeed the more one looks at the idea the more absurd it becomes.

What if these private operators, who compete with ScotRail on some routes, win passengers and cause ScotRail to lose earnings, does the taxpayer take the hit? Do the fares then go up, or our taxes?

There is no doubt that there have been significant problems with the current ScotRail franchise operated by the Netherlands railway company, Abellio. We should, however, remember that the contract is monitored by the Scottish government through its agencies and officials. If ScotRail is not living up to its commitments then there are powers within that contract that can be exercised, and if these are not strong enough then it is for the Scottish Government to bring changes forward. Such a move would, of course, be an admission of failure by politicians and agencies of the state, so instead of accepting responsibility both the SNP and Labour talk from time to time of renationalising ScotRail. But what would it mean?

The drive towards a state owned ScotRail is coming most strongly from the rail unions, indeed it was at their behest that Scottish Labour approved the policy. For those of us who are old enough to remember British Rail during the seventies when trade union power was at its most damaging the thought of ScotRail management being bullied, blackmailed and manipulated to put the interests of the workforce first is far from attractive. Their resistance, for instance, to driver-only trains with drivers opening and closing doors is absurd in a modern age when technology is actually moving towards driverless automobiles.

The ending last year of a ScotRail dispute over such procedures where it was eventually agreed drivers could control the opening of carriage doors – but guards must close them – only highlights the potential for industrial strife that must become worse when the management, the politicians at Holyrood, are in bed with the trade unions that fund them or promise them political support.

Similarly the conflict of interest between politicians who have the power to approve, deny or reroute investment decisions that will affect ScotRail threatens the smooth operation of the service and imperils the public finances. If it is true the Scottish Government is operating under an austerity budget, as we are so often told by Labour Party and the SNP government, then how would these politicians find the funds to invest in ScotRail that Abellio is able to access on the capital markets? Which infrastructure budget would they raid? Which funds from a road or bridge improvement in a community possibly not even served by a railway line would they relocate to ScotRail? There’s certainly no new money available so how would they finance the operation – purely through passenger fares and the current operating subsidy – or would that subsidy have to rise?

Socialists of all colours object to Abellio making a profit from operating ScotRail, ignoring that the company is able to do this through its experience of running railways in many countries and identifying economies that can drive costs down and obtain value for money through productivity improvements. A nationalised operator would still need to find a profit, so it can be reinvested into the business, but if they don’t then it is the taxpayer that pays more or borrowing is required where our children and their children pay for the excesses of politicians at a later date.

And why stop at ScotRail? Why not take the next logical step and consider nationalising other Scottish transport companies such as First, the UK’s largest and based in Aberdeen, or Stagecoach, which has a large shareholding in Virgin Trains and is based in Perth. If the principle of nationalising railway operators is sound for ScotRail then why not carry on to others?

As a threat to Abellio and a signal to the rail unions the SNP government has already established a shell company to introduce rail nationalisation if it chooses to do so. Now Labour is trying to trump a bad idea by shouting louder. Both are decoupled from reality. Renationalisation is policy best shunted into the sidings.

Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org