THE Scottish Government could renationalise rail services by “replicating the Scottish Water model”, according to former transport minister Alex Neil.
He claims that this would result in ScotRail being publicly owned but “firmly supervised” by an independent regulator.
Neil put forward the specific proposal in response to a Sunday Herald report that revealed the Scottish government was looking at options on how to renationalise the railways.
The intervention from Neil, who was responsible for rail and Scottish Water as the infrastructure secretary, will add to pressure on the Scottish Government to deliver a publicly owned railway as criticism continues over the performance of Danish-owned ScotRail.
His remarks came after it was revealed that ministers are “preparing the ground” for a form of public ownership in the event of the Scottish Government going ahead with its threat to strip the company of its contract if it fails to improve services.
However, Neil went much further and said the SNP government should set up a publicly-owned company to take over all train services and rail infrastructure in Scotland, based on the model of Scottish Water.
Neil, who served in Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinets, said it is “one of the most efficient water companies in the UK” with some of the lowest prices in the country.
Scottish Water is a publicly-owned company, responsible to the Scottish Government. The Water Industry Commission for Scotland is its ‘economic regulator’, with powers over costs and performance, as well as over enforcement of drinking water quality regulations.
Neil said Scottish Water, which the SNP Government has resisted calls to privatise, showed that a publicly-owned service could deliver for customers and that it would be an ideal model for Scotland’s rail services.
He said: “I think the Scottish Government should look at replicating the Scottish Water model when looking at the future of the rail industry in Scotland.
“Scottish Water is one of the most efficient water companies in the UK. It is a publicly-owned company which has some of the lowest prices in the UK, is investing heavily in renewed water infrastructure and produces a good return for the taxpayer.
“Unlike the old nationalised industries, Scottish Water is firmly supervised by an independent regulator, which sets its parameters, key objectives, etc
“If the railway was run along similar lines I believe it could be successful.”
Neil also said said that a publicly-owned rail company should take over the privately-owned rolling stock such as ScotRail and Network Rail – an arms’ length public body of the Department for Transport in charge of infrastructure.
The SNP MSP for Airdrie and Shotts said a big failing of the railways since privatisation in the early 1990s was that services have been split up between different owners. “Anyone who knows anything about the railways advise that the biggest problem is the split of ownership and control between the company owning and managing the rail infrastructure and those responsible for the rolling stock,” he said.
“Railways tend to work more efficiently if it is run as an integrated operation. I believe we should look at doing that in Scotland.”
The SNP has faced criticism over claims from ministers that the Scottish Government does not hold enough powers to renationalise the railways. It has also come under fire for awarding a contract to Dutch rail operator Abellio to run ScotRail services.
However, Neil’s intervention was hailed by opposition MSPs and unions as a clear sign that the SNP was moving away from a “timid” position over a commitment to return Scotland’s railways to public ownership.
Labour MSP Neil Findlay said: “Alex Neil speaking in support of the renationalisation of rail is very welcome and a departure from the timid stance of the Scottish Government.
“The current shambles that is the Abellio contract is the most clear evidence that anyone has of the practical benefits such a move would bring. We currently see passengers having to endure the misery of cancelled trains, late services and rising fares.
“Public ownership would go a long way to ending that misery.”
Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association (TSSA), said: “I’m delighted that senior figures in the SNP are now seeing sense and support a people’s railway that would be run for the benefit of taxpayers and not profits.”
The Sunday Herald last week reported that the model ministers are understood to have in mind for rail renationalisation is based on CalMac Ferries Ltd (CFL), which describes itself as a “wholly-owned subsidiary of David MacBrayne Ltd, which is wholly owned by Scottish Ministers”.
In response to Neil, the Scottish Government’s transport agency Transport Scotland restated a pledge to ensure a non-profit organisation is in position to bid for the rail contract whenever it next comes up for renewal.
A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “Devolution of rail has clearly been successful but it is vital that we build on that. Using powers awarded in March this year, Transport Scotland officials have started the work necessary to fulfil the manifesto commitment to ensure that a public sector body is in a position to bid for the next franchise.
“We will ensure that a public sector bidder is in that position should either the Scottish Government or Abellio ScotRail take steps to invoke the break-point in the current contract.”
ScotRail, which was fined £483,000 for failing to meet required standards for trains and stations, declined to comment.