Network Rail should be devolved, think-tank says

Borders Railway, Scotrail, Tweedbank line, Newtongrange station. Picture; Ian Georgeson
Borders Railway, Scotrail, Tweedbank line, Newtongrange station. Picture; Ian Georgeson
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Network Rail was responsible for more than half the delays on Scotland’s trains over the last year, a think-tank has said.

Reform Scotland highlighted the figure as it called for the organisation, responsible for maintaining rail infrastructure, to be devolved to Scotland. The move would offer a “clear line of accountability when something goes wrong”, it said.

The recommendation is contained in the think-tank’s new report on modernising Scotland’s railways.

It comes as ScotRail faces ongoing criticism over delays to its services, with calls for franchise holder Abellio to be stripped of the contract. Some critics want the franchise to be run by a public-sector operator in the future.

Reform Scotland’s report found over the last year that 54 per cent of ScotRail’s delays of more than three minutes were a result of faults attributed to Network Rail, which is already a public body. Network Rail is part-funded by Transport Scotland but is ultimately accountable to Westminster.

One of the report’s authors, Tom Harris, said: “The current debate over whether or not to nationalise ScotRail misses the point. 54 per cent of delays are the fault of Network Rail.Nationalising ScotRail won’t make the trains run on time and it is self-defeating for any politician to imply otherwise.

“The Scottish Government is responsible for the strategic direction and funding of the Scottish rail network, but this cannot be properly exercised while Network Rail remains answerable to the UK government.

Other issues identified by the report include unfavourable journey times in Scotland compared with those of a similar distance in England – Edinburgh to Aberdeen and London to Birmingham are roughly the same distance, but the former takes well over two hours and the latter less than 90 minutes.

While it welcomed investment in the railways, it said upgrading lines while trying to use them can cause additional problems and investments such as the Borders Railway had been “short-sighted”. The new line from Edinburgh to Tweedbank is not electrified and is single-track.

It called for the Scottish Government to “future-proof” all new rail investment by ensuring it is double-track and electrified where possible.

The report says the government should also create a Scottish rail infrastructure commission to look into faster rail links for the future.

Mr Harris added: “Ongoing improvements are vital ... but we need to think about the bigger picture and create a bold strategy for the future.”