'Passengers shouldn’t kid themselves the change will make any difference to whether their trains run on time' - Alastair Dalton

Switching control of ScotRail into public hands will be no panacea - it will just leave ministers with fewer people to blame when things goes wrong.

It means they could find themselves drinking in the “last chance saloon” which they had warned current operator Abellio about when performance deteriorated.

Passengers shouldn’t kid themselves the change will make any difference to whether their trains run on time.

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The Scottish Government closely managed the franchise before the pandemic, and since the onset of Covid-19 has effectively taken it over in return for hundreds of millions of pounds of extra funding to keep the system running after 90 per cent of its passengers disappeared.

Abellio has funded £475 million of new trains including Class 385s which run on the Edinburgh-Glasgow main line. Picture: John Devlin

And far from fat-cat privateers, as some seek to portray them, Abellio hasn’t made a profit from ScotRail since the early part of the franchise in 2015.

They have also funded new trains to the tune of £475 million.

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The strange thing about Transport Secretary Michael Matheson’s decision on public ownership is he didn’t need to make it just yet.

But it’ll no doubt be seen as a feel-good move to please the voters with the Holyrood election just weeks away.

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With Abellio’s truncated contract still a year to run and still no announcement from the UK Government about a replacement for the Britain-wide train operator franchising system, which it controls, the SNP minister could have chosen to blame Westminster for the uncertainty and left it till after the May poll.

Because we don’t know the future shape of the railways, Mr Matheson’s move may also be only a temporary one.

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He’s hoping for far greater integration between ScotRail and Network Rail, which runs the tracks and signals and is still under UK Government control.

But further devolution of such powers is by no means certain.

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On the plus side, the Scottish Government has shown its commitment to ScotRail by nearly doubling its annual support to almost £1 billion a year during the coronavirus crisis, rather than reducing it to a skeleton service when hardly anyone is travelling.

The challenge will be for ScotRail to find its way out again, attracting passengers back when there will be massive cost pressures which won’t change, whoever is at the controls.

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