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

Simply nationalising won’t make trains run on time

This article by Alison Payne first appeared in The Times on 19 March 2021.

This week Michael Matheson, the transport secretary, announced to MSPs that next year the running of ScotRail would return to public ownership.

The issue of whether our railways should be nationalised is an
oft-repeated debate in Scotland. However, the situation regarding trains, tracks and ownership is more complicated than a simple public v private argument.

The track, bridges, tunnels and stations of the rail network are already publicly owned, but the trains are not. In 2019-20, the majority of delays to Abellio ScotRail services were attributed to the public body Network Rail.

Simply nationalising ScotRail will not make the trains run on time. Although the rail network in Scotland is owned and funded by the Scottish government, it is managed by Network Rail, which is answerable to the UK government.

It would make sense for responsibility for the Scottish route to be devolved. Such a change would mean a far clearer, and more transparent, line of accountability.

The priority for the rail network in Scotland should be what transformational change is needed to help to improve connectivity and grow our economy.

This is why Reform Scotland believes that we need a forward-looking Scottish Rail Infrastructure Commission which would look at what our railways need to offer people in 2050.

Such a commission should look at links to city regions, local networks and rural and scenic areas.

It would also consider what impact improving the links could have on local and regional economies. Do we really want to be in a situation where it could take less time to travel from Edinburgh to London by rail than it would to travel to Inverness?

The Scottish government deserves credit for having in place a rolling programme of much-needed investment to upgrade our railways. Electrification brings many benefits, though those plans are limited to certain areas.

However, it is also important to recognise that upgrading railway lines takes time — it will always be difficult to try to fix or improve something when you need to use it at the same time.

Reform Scotland first called for such a report in 2016 — Scotland can’t afford to wait any longer.

A report from the UK National Infrastructure Commission about the north of England highlighted problems with connectivity and looked to find innovative solutions to them. Similar ambition and long-term thinking is required for Scotland.