The option of a public sector bid to run Scotland’s railways must be kept on the table, Scottish Greens co-convener Patrick Harvie has said.
Speaking at First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Mr Harvie said that the Scottish Government must consider using a break clause in the ScotRail contract to end Abellio’s deal in operating the franchise.
In November, MSPs voted against a Labour motion calling for a cancellation to the agreement.
Figures published earlier this week indicated that 2,691 ScotRail services were cancelled due to a lack of staff between April 2018 and January 16 this year.
ScotRail said that the late delivery of trains, coupled with a rest day working and overtime ban last year had contributed to a drop in performance levels.
Mr Harvie suggested that devolving control of Network Rail could help to address some of the issues facing rail travel, but urged Deputy First Minister John Swinney (standing in for First Minister Nicola Sturgeon) to take action.
“There’s clearly a need for wider structural change. Many of us would agree that Network Rail needs to be in the control of Scotland so that we can have a truly joined-up approach to these issues,” said Mr Harvie.
“But we cannot wait for that. That is no excuse for not taking action now.
“Three months ago when many of these failures were already being regularly reported, the Government voted against using the break point in the ScotRail franchise next year.
“If the Government weren’t convinced then, I think they should be convinced now that that option must remain on the table.
“Surely the Deputy First Minister won’t rule that option out because doing so would give Abellio a free pass to continue failing.
“The Government must work on the assumption that a public sector bidder may be needed from next year”.
Mr Swinney said that the Scottish Government does not consider the performance of ScotRail to be acceptable and reiterated that a remedial notice had been issued to Abellio on December 24.
The notice requires the operator to state how it will address current issues by submitting a remedial plan by Febuary 18.
The deputy First Minister agreed with Mr Harvie’s assertion that Network Rail should be devolved and said that development work to establish a public sector bid was underway.
“If there was to be a situation which arose where an operator of last resort was to replace ScotRail in 2020, that can only be a temporary measure,” Mr Swinney said.
“Under the current UK legislation, the requirement to tender the franchise would still remain which then opens up the possibility, which we have now secured as a Government, to bring forward a competitive public sector bid in that context.
“Development work is underway about how to advance the concept of a competitive public sector bid. That work is being taken forward by the Transport Secretary in dialogue with David MacBrayne Ltd who we’ve invited to take forward some of that work.
“The Government believes fundamentally we have got to have an efficient public rail network that meets the needs of individuals within Scotland, that acts in the public interest, that delivers services that members of the public are looking for.
“That’s what our immediate short-term action is focused on achieving and it’s why we’re open to developing a competitive public sector bid within the context of the exisiting UK legislation within which we have to operate.”
Labour Transport spokesman Colin Smyth said that his party would continue to campaign for public ownership of the railways.
Mr Smyth said: “Labour wants a publicly owned ScotRail but our plans to exercise the break clause in Abellio’s contract were blocked at Holyrood by the SNP and the Tories.
“With passengers facing rip-off fares and substandard service, we’ll continue to make the case for public ownership our our public transport – unlike the SNP, which has handed Abellio a licence to fail.”