KEN HOUSTON                 NOVEMBER 29 2016

Humza Yousaf, Scotland’s transport minister, who has threatened to take ScotRail into public ownership if the current operator, Abellio, does not up its game, should be careful for what he wishes.

Clever propagandists, both within the ranks of the SNP and among Nat-sympathising journalists, have turned the recent angst on Scotland’s railway into a political debate, whose motion seems to be that renationalising railway services would be the best option for the passenger, the government, the taxpayer and the economy.

This is mixed in with some opportunistic propaganda aimed at showing the private sector in a bad light – especially in a former State-owned industry. True, Abellio is not without its faults but the recent incident which caused mayhem to the service across much of Scotland was one of those things that occasionally happen in the worst possible place and at the worst possible time.

The problem occurred when a locomotive broke down while crossing from one track to another on the approach to Edinburgh’s Waverley Station.

No one seemed to look at a more intractable issue – e.g. that four tracks on the western approach to the station are totally inadequate for a major mainline station; and that the problem basically goes back to Edinburgh’s unique topography and the campaign by the capital’s 19th century establishment to have Waverley ‘hidden’ as a major railway terminus was thought not to be conducive to the townscape.

Those with a political agenda will continue to call for renationalisation regardless but less motivated supporters among the general public must surely be too young to remember the British Rail era: delays, strikes and works to rules, curled sandwiches and the sourpuss attitude of many station booking clerks (the latter, incidentally, the antithesis of today’s customer-focussed regime introduced by private companies).

Also conveniently forgotten is the fact that present-day train cancellations and delays are often caused by infrastructure problems which are the responsibility of Network Rail and/or Transport Scotland – both of them nationalised bodies.

It is no accident that among those slavering over the prospect of renationalisation is the RMT who are given much airtime to cry crocodile tears about putting passengers first when recent works to rule by its members in Scotland actually put passengers last.

And herein lies one ample reason why Mr Yousaf will not go through with his nationalisation threat: the transport minister may have been a regular on television and radio recently but when it comes to fighting battles, privatisation keeps him safely behind the lines like a First World War general.

The RMT is just about the most disciplined, most ruthless and (admittedly from the point of view of the membership) most productive trade union in the country. Within the current situation, it is Abellio who have to deal with the RMT and its cement-faced officials as regards the everyday operation of the railway.

Despite the brave face put on by Abellio and the Scottish government, the recent settlement over who opens and closes train doors led to major concessions being granted to the RMT; one can imagine how much more successful the union would be when pitched against a bunch of careerist Holyrood civil servants scared to say boo to a goose lest it damaged their promotion prospects.

But even if the SNP was prepared to press ahead with plans for a ‘people’s railway’, they would face extreme difficulty in surmounting perhaps the biggest barrier of all – the European Union, whose stated objective is “opening up national freight and passenger markets to cross-border competition”.

The EU’s first railway directive (updated in 2012) made it a legal requirement for independent companies to be able to apply for non-discriminatory access to a member state’s railway track, effectively enshrining the role of the private sector. This principle was maintained in the 2012 update, one of whose other aims is “to boost competition in railway service management”.

Lawyers have pointed out that the directive does not specifically prevent State-owned railways (which are, of course, still common on the continent) continuing to operate.

But the spirit of the EU directive is for opening up national track to competition and this is at odds with the SNP government’s pronouncements on the possible renationalisation of ScotRail.

So while not preventing renationalisation per se, EU membership would undoubtedly make it even more time-consuming and costly for any government so inclined.

And herein lies a dilemma for our transport minister. As is well known, he wants Scotland to stay in the EU, preferably as an independent country but if not as part of the UK. Ironically, however, EU membership is more, not less, likely to scupper plans for renationalising train services.

So there’s one more reason for Humza to be careful for what he wishes…..although I don’t actually believe he has the slightest intention of going through with his threat and that eventually it will be shunted into the sidings.


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