Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

A commission for Scotland’s rail

This article by Alison Payne first appeared in issue 22 of Scottish Policy Now.

The issue of whether our railways should be nationalized never seems to be far from discussion. However, the actual situation regarding trains, tracks and ownership in Scotland is a little more complicated than simply a public/ private sector debate.

The rail network in Scotland is already publicly owned. The track, bridges, tunnels and stations are managed by Network Rail, a public body which owns, operates and maintains the rail infrastructure and is also responsible for development of the national rail timetable and long-term planning for the network.

There are a number of different franchises which operate throughout the UK. The Scottish Government is responsible for two – ScotRail and the cross-border Caledonian Sleeper.

There are other franchises which operate in Scotland, as well as other parts of the UK, but are awarded by the UK Government, such as the East Coast mainline currently operated by LNER.

As well as being responsible for managing the two franchises, the Scottish Government is also responsible for providing the strategic direction; funding for maintenance; renewal; and expansion of railways in Scotland. It can also legislate for the provision of new railways which are entirely within Scotland, such as the Borders Railway.

Yet despite having those responsibilities, the public body charged with carrying them out, Network Rail, is answerable to the UK Government and the UK Secretary of State for Transport, not the Scottish Government, creating a very messy line of accountability and transparency.

Nicola Shaw’s report into the future of Network Rail, published in 2016, highlighted a “lack of local flexibility and autonomy”. As a result, the report recommended that there should be greater route devolution, with separate route-based accounts and regulatory settlements. (Network Rail is currently split into eight regional ‘routes’, one of which is Scotland.) While the recommendation may have been aimed more at the other routes due to the existing degree of separation of the Scottish route, Reform Scotland believes the arguments still apply to Scotland.

Reform Scotland believes that responsibility for the Scottish route should transfer to a new body directly answerable to the Scottish Government. That body would, of course, have to work with Network Rail on cross-border rail, but the change would mean a far clearer, and more transparent, line of accountability. The Scottish Government already has responsibility for the Scottish network, therefore it makes sense that the body tasked with managing that route is ultimately answerable to a Scottish Government minister, as opposed to the UK Secretary of State.


While devolving Network Rail may be an important step, it should only be the beginning of a wider consideration of what we want Scotland’s rail network to look like going forward.

The Scottish Government’s planned upgrades, including the Edinburgh Glasgow Rail Improvement Programme; the Aberdeen to Inverness line; the Highland Main line; and Stirling, Dunblane & Alloa electrification, should be welcomed. But as important as these improvements are; should we be more ambitious?

The following is an extract from the introduction to the High Speed North report:

“It takes longer to get from Liverpool to Hull by train than to travel twice the distance from London to Paris. Manchester and Leeds are less than 40 miles apart and yet on the congested M62 this often takes more than two hours by car.”

This report, from the National Infrastructure Commission, highlighted a connectivity problem and looked to find innovative solutions. Similar problems exist in Scotland. For example, it takes about 4 hours 20 minutes to travel the roughly 400 miles between Edinburgh and London. To travel between Edinburgh and Inverness, a distance of about 150 miles, takes about 3 hours 30 minutes. Projects such as HS2 and extension are looking at cutting the former, yet there are no ambitious plans to reduce the latter. It takes nearly three hours and a change of train to travel the 75 miles between Dumfries and Stranraer. It takes over two hours to travel just over 100 miles between Perth and Inverness by train.

Reform Scotland believes a similar commission is needed for Scotland. The commission could examine links to city regions, local networks and rural and scenic areas; and the impact improving the links could have on regional economies as well as on the environment.

Planning, scoping and finding resources for major rail expansion can take a very long time, as the development of HS2 has highlighted. If we want a transformational change in connectivity within Scotland we need to start discussing this now.

Our railways are a vital component of our economy and it is certainly worth considering what, if anything, can be done. Are we happy standing still, or can Scotland be ambitious and transform its rail network?