Iain Macwhirter: Will ‘NatRail’ be better than ScotRail? Passengers can be convinced…

Well, it couldn’t be worse, could it? Under private operator Abellio, the Scottish rail service had become synonymous with fare hikes, delays, cancellations and industrial disputes. So what can the beleaguered passenger expect now that rail service is back in state hands in Scotland? Well, what about rate increases, delays, cancellations and labor disputes.

Now is not a good time to nationalize ScotRail, or “NatRail” as it will inevitably be called. Rail service is in crisis. Passenger numbers are down 40% from 2019. People have been forced into their cars due to the pandemic and it won’t be easy to get them out.

Even before the pandemic, only around 6% of commuters took the train to work, according to Transport Scotland, compared to 66% who traveled by car. The new work-from-home trend will mean further downsizing, leaving the train to take over.

Fare increases above the rate of inflation – 3.8% last July – do not make rail more attractive, as services are reduced and lines cut. This year’s increase is expected to be around 8%, a crippling rise just as the state takes over. Rail transport is already absurdly expensive.

Lower the costs

THE marginal cost for someone driving a Mercedes S-Class from Glasgow to Edinburgh is significantly less than a standard day trip. Indeed, my Skoda Octavia does the 82 mile round trip for 30% less than the off-peak fare, even with gas prices at their current all-time high. And I can carry four passengers for nothing. For a family, train travel is prohibitive wherever you travel.

Before the pandemic there was evidence that people were more keen to use the train at weekends, but this was trashed by rail strikes which led to Sunday services being scrapped for most of 2021 Abellio passengers suffered endemic strikes, mainly led by the railway union. RMT. These were salary increases and staff reductions that the company said were necessary to make the service more efficient.

We will now see how the Scottish government handles industrial relations, but they are unlikely to be tougher negotiators. After unions threatened to strike at the COP26 climate summit, the Scottish government stepped in and forced a deal that gave them more pay and reversed planned efficiency savings.

Listen, I don’t want to be too negative. The history of railway privatization has been an absolute disaster over 25 years, with private bosses essentially reaping public subsidies while treating passengers like cattle. Rail is a natural monopoly and competition is not possible. It becomes a license to print money. It should probably be in the hands of the public.

Nationalization could be an opportunity to create an integrated transport system with computerized ticketing, linking bus and train services. As the cost of the automobile increases, an imaginative government could alter the terms of trade by introducing something similar to the equivalent road rate that applies on ferries to the islands. It should never cost more to travel by public transport than to travel by car.

However, it will be a huge job forcing people not to use their cars. Indeed, in a democratic society, this is probably impossible. There are over three million registered vehicles in Scotland – it’s a huge constituency and one that’s largely silent on Twitter (the politicians’ medium) where cars are seen as the offspring of the devil.

Electric dream

THE vast majority of Scots travel by car, not only because it’s cheaper, but because it’s more flexible and much more comfortable. Once cars are electrified, in eight years, environmental advocacy against private transport will be less easy to do, especially when a new generation of light vehicles takes over from today’s monstrous SUVs.

Face reality: our railways are old, smelly, expensive. Planes flying at 30,000 feet may have clean lavatories but no ground cars.

Many women find trains to be a threatening environment due to gangs of drinking guys.

Drafty platforms, old-fashioned carriages and unhelpful staff have contributed to rail’s image as something from the last century – or the century before. Scotland is unable to introduce fast rail, the technological development that saved the train in Europe. French TGVs are beating road and air transport on their own terms. But Scotland does not have the means to introduce the fast train there, and in any case the distances are too short. And would anyone trust this government to manage a transformative investment of this magnitude?

The SNP nationalized Ferguson Marine, Scotland’s last commercial shipbuilder, to much fanfare in 2019. We all know what happened then. Public money was thrown at the company because it did not deliver on its promises and no one took responsibility for the mess.

The ferries are five years behind schedule and two and a half times over budget – a loss of £150m that is expected to rise to almost £300m. Nicola Sturgeon says it was worth it as 300 jobs were saved. But at what cost ? It would have been cheaper to give half a million to each worker and invite them to retire.

Transport Secretary Jenny Gilruth insists that public ownership is preferable to private ownership because there are no shareholders to pay and profits go to the public treasury.

But that assumes there are profits in the first place. Indeed, if this is the case, why has it just accepted that the public ferry service, CalMac, buys its next two ferries from the Cemre shipyard in Altinova in Turkey? Maybe because the Cemre yard would have launched 22 ferries in the time Ferguson didn’t even take to complete one. They will be delivered at a price of £100m or so because that’s the deal and they have to stick to it.

Taxpayer risk

MS Gilruth told the BBC it was time to ‘move on’ from Ferguson – well, she would, wouldn’t she? State-owned ScotRail will be “more responsible”, she says. But it is actually more difficult to hold politicians and civil servants accountable for financial disasters when all the risk is transferred to the taxpayer, who has no choice but to pay for the mistakes made.

No politician or public servant will lose their job or end up in court because of mismanagement at Ferguson Marine.

Unions instead gave the game away on Friday by staging a day of action for better pay on the same day ScotRail became public property.

When unions strike and disrupt services, it is always easier to pay than to hold out for efficiency savings and the introduction of new technologies – as the Docherty report advised last year which called for a reduction 20% of ScotRail jobs.

The Scottish Government has undertaken a heroic task in trying to bring this outdated service into the 21st century. I wish them good luck, really. This will be the greatest test of public enterprise in our time and we can only hope that it will succeed in avoiding the mistakes of the past. Omens are not good.

About Alma Ackerman

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