Ministers warned that extending Abellio's ScotRail franchise would be 'humiliating U-turn'
Scottish Labour said any extension of Abellio’s ScotRail operation would amount to a “kick in the teeth for passengers” amid industry speculation the Scottish Government is considering the option.
It comes as Transport Secretary Michael Matheson prepares to announce options for the future of Scotland’s main train operator on Wednesday amid uncertainty over what will happen after the current contract is terminated prematurely in March next year.
The ten-year franchise is ending early because ministers refused to accept Abellio’s cost claims for the final three years of its term.
The UK Government, which retains control of the franchising system, has signalled it will be scrapped but has still to announce how it will be replaced, in a forthcoming white paper.
Several industry sources have told The Scotsman they expect Abellio’s contract to be extended because of the uncertainty over how soon any UK Government changes could be in place.
Labour said Mr Matheson ruled that out last month, but was non-committal when asked again this week.
In February, South Scotland Labour MSP Colin Smyth asked him at Holyrood’s connectivity committee: “Am I right that under no circumstances will you extend the current Abellio franchise beyond March 2022?
Mr Matheson responded: “No, we will not. We have already made it clear that the franchise will come to an end next year.”
However, asked at the committee on Wednesday whether the franchise would be extended, he said: “We are looking at several different options and I intend to update Parliament before we go into recess on what approach we will take in March 2022.
"That’s in some degree dependent on what’s in the white paper.”
Mr Matheson said he wanted to see a public sector-controlled railway that was also more integrated with Network Rail, which runs tracks and signalling.
Mr Smyth told The Scotsman: “ After pressure from Labour and the trade unions, Michael Matheson announced more than a year ago the Abellio franchise would come to an end in March 2022 for very good reasons, and re-confirmed this just a few weeks ago.
"Any backtracking on this would be a humiliating U-turn and a kick in the teeth for passengers who, pre-pandemic, had to put up with overcrowded, late trains and ever-rising fares.
"The Scottish Government has the power to follow the Welsh Labour Government example and bring the running of our trains under public control through an operator of last resort, and that’s what they should get on with doing.”
Kevin Lindsay, Scottish secretary of trains drivers’ union Aslef, said: “It would be a betrayal of taxpayers if Abellio continues to receive management fees when every penny of the Scottish budget should being used on recovery from this pandemic.”
A spokesperson for Transport Scotland said: “The Scottish Government has repeatedly stated the current franchising system is no longer fit for purpose.
"However, we must act in accordance with current UK rail legislation
“Options are currently being considered for the future operation of ScotRail services after the current contract.
"Given the exceptional circumstances that continue to arise as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and that we are still awaiting the outcome of the delayed UK Government white paper, it is appropriate to include options for all eventualities in those considerations."