Changing Scotrail franchise solves nothing

Changing Scotrail franchise solves nothing

by Liam Kerr
article from Tuesday 17, December, 2019

AS WE APPROACH the busy festive period, I know that the everyday frustration felt by commuters, tourists and businesses when another train is cancelled or delayed will only be exaggerated in the coming weeks. And rightly so, as serious problems require serious solutions. However, like a broken record, the SNP and Labour fail to offer practical solutions to these issues.

Last month we saw Labour bring forward a debate to the Scottish Parliament on preventing the extension of the current ScotRail franchise beyond its first expiry date of 2022 in order to nationalise the franchise.  

Since 2015 more than half of train journey delays were the responsibility of Network Rail, which is, incidentally, a publicly owned company. The delays were to do with the track, the signalling and the infrastructure. Over the past year, just over 40 per cent of cancellations were caused by track or signalling issues – and changing the franchisee would fail to address that.

Likewise, a further 10 per cent of delays or cancellations in Scotland were caused by non-ScotRail operators.

Again, changing the franchisee would fail to address that.

Then there is the weather. An underlying cause of two thirds of delays in 2018 was storm Ali, and this summer, more than 60 per cent of average August rainfall fell in three hours, significantly impacting on the West Highland line, and the main Edinburgh to Glasgow line at Winchburgh. 20 per cent of faults on the network are due to weather or circumstances outside of control of the operator.

Changing the franchisee would fail to address that.

According to the latest performance statistics, the incidents that caused the most disruption to services recently include an incident where a passenger pulled the emergency alarm on a service leaving Glasgow central, an incident on the Forth Rail bridge and an incident that required the emergency services at Falkirk Grahamston.

Changing the franchisee would fail to address such circumstances.

Of course, trains sometimes break down but we must remember that the franchisee does not own the stock. It is all leased from the rolling stock leasing companies Porterbrook, Angel Trains or Eversholt, with the exception of the class 385s, which are owned by Caledonian Rail Leasing. Any new franchisee would be working with the same kit.

Admittedly, the current franchisee does its own maintenance on its 225 diesel multiple units and electric multiple units, but the same people would presumably do the maintenance before and after any retendering. I hope that the Labour Party does not question the professionalism or dedication of those who do a very difficult job on increasingly aged stock. I certainly do not.

And what of that stock? The current franchisee has tried to upgrade it with 26 refurbished high-speed trains ordered from Angel Trains, but we are told, the ROSCO subcontracted the refurbishment to Wabtec, which failed to deliver on the contract, and therefore led to the un-refurbished sets.

Changing the franchisee would fail to address that.

Nor would it solve the overcrowding that plagues customers. That requires track capacity and more carriages. We would not achieve that with a knee-jerk expulsion of a franchisee.

And if we end the franchise early, how attractive would a new franchisee find a proposition that has approximately a 2 to 3 per cent return at best, and the precedent set that £500 million worth of investment on the basis of return over the full period could result in a terminated contract possibly eliminating those returns. The Scottish Government is lacking a long-term sustainable vision for the future of Scotland’s railways and no new franchisee will change that.

I accept that our railway is not up to scratch, and I do not seek to cheerlead for any of the agents mentioned—especially an SNP Government that refuses to lead or invest outside the central belt.

But instead of wasting time debating break clauses and models of franchise ownership, let us focus on the positive interventions and solutions that would make a difference to Scotland’s railway. The next two years could be wasted, along with perhaps £10 million, on a public sector bid, or we could focus on delivering on the infrastructure that we have. Let us rely on information from sources like the ongoing Williams Review, one of the largest reviews of rail infrastructure, to make informed decisions on whether the current franchise model will exist in the rail landscape of the future.

The plan to change franchisees is short-sighted and naïve, and it betrays a fundamental ignorance about Scotland’s railways – it only serves as a head-line grabber for Labour’s blinkered nationalisation agenda. 

 

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