Like bad Christmas cracker jokes and rows with relatives, train disruptions seem to be part and parcel of the festive season.
Passengers travelling between Glasgow and Edinburgh yesterday morning were left stranded after a signalling fault played havoc with the timetable.
On what was for many the first day back at work after the Yuletide period, some commuters will have wished they could crawl back under the duvet or spend another day at home debating whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie — anything but make the miserable trek to the office amid delays, cancellations and standing-room-only.
It was, therefore, an altogether inauspicious moment for Reform Scotland to release a report calling for devolution of Network Rail to the Scottish Parliament. The think tank’s paper, ‘On the right track’, is a thoughtful contribution but its problems run deeper than unfortunate timing. For the assumption that more powers is the panacea for what ails Scottish transport is symptomatic of the reigning orthodoxy at Holyrood.
The Scottish Government is already in the driver’s seat when it comes to awarding contracts for the ScotRail and Caledonian Sleeper franchises and ministers even have responsibility for funding the rail network. What is missing is a distinctive body in charge of running the infrastructure and answerable to Scottish ministers in the way Network Rail reports to the UK Transport Secretary.
Reform Scotland wants to see ‘a new body directly responsible to, and answerable to, the Scottish Government’. The formation of a Scottish Rail Infrastructure Commission ‘would mean a far clearer, and more transparent, line of accountability’ and could undertake major projects such as a high-speed link to the rural north or overhauling provision across the Borders.
Kudos to Reform for doing some ‘big thinking’ — there is far too little thinking of any kind in Scottish policy-making — but its proposals go off the tracks early on. Before devolving yet more powers to the Scottish Parliament, we are required to ask what they have done with the powers they already have. Public Performance Measure, the metric which records the timeliness of rail services, confirms that yesterday’s disarray is far from a blip.
This year almost one in ten ScotRail trains failed to reach their terminating station within five minutes of the scheduled arrival time. Scotland’s main rail franchise lags behind the London Overground, East Midlands Trains, and Arriva Trains Wales, amongst others. Figures show Abellio-run ScotRail is responsible for more than a third of the delays suffered by its passengers, a rate that puts the company fourth from the bottom of the national league table.
On the plus side, all that standing about waiting means the nation’s commuters can translate key Gaelic texts like ‘Queen Street Low Level’ and ‘Alight here for Falkirk Grahamston’.
Reform points out that a majority of delays are caused by Network Rail but given the Scottish Government’s record on the franchise there are no grounds to assume things will get any better with them in charge. They might even get worse.
So, if ministers can’t get the train out of the station, why should we be hooking more carriages onto their engine? One reason, the report ventures, is that a network answerable to Holyrood would be more responsive to Scotland’s needs. The present set-up prizes the route between Glasgow/Edinburgh and London over regional services and Reform calls attention to High Speed North, which aims to connect cities from Liverpool to Hull.
The report author contends: ‘In thirty years’ time, do we want to be in a situation where it could take less time to reach London by rail from Edinburgh than it does to reach Inverness? What about links between Dumfries and Galloway and Edinburgh? Or Glasgow Crossrail, or Edinburgh and Glasgow airport rail links?’
That’s all well and good but some estimates put the cost of HS3 at £7billion. Where would the Scottish Government get the equivalent sum to upgrade infrastructure in the Highlands? Instead of building a new quango from scratch wouldn’t it be more efficient — and cost-effective — to make Network Rail answerable to the Scotland Office on relevant matters and give the Secretary of State a say over investment north of the Border?
Improvements are certainly needed. Venture far enough outside the cities and larger towns and you’ll encounter railway stations that look like they last saw a lick of paint when Brief Encounter was in the pictures. But it is foolhardy to think the only way to remedy this situation is by layering on yet more strata of bureaucracy.
The Reform Scotland report gets some important things right. It insists that talk of public ownership is a dead-end and that policy-makers have to focus on what works. As the document notes: ‘[W]ho is running one of the franchises should not be the biggest issue facing the rail network. What would nationalisation or bringing ScotRail into the public sector actually bring about? There needs to be a realisation that simply bringing ScotRail into public ownership would not make the trains run on time…
‘Instead of arguing over who runs ScotRail, Reform Scotland thinks the focus of the debate around the rail network should be on Scotland’s poor rail connectivity; on our lack of electrification; and moving away from the obsession of cutting train times to London, when it can take longer to travel far shorter distances within Scotland.’
A pragmatic, common sense stance but there is no evidence that devolving Network Rail would slake Labour leader Richard Leonard’s thirst for Clause Four nationalisation and the SNP will be sure to chase the latest polls and easiest headlines. Far from deterring a bid to muscle private companies out of the ScotRail tendering process, handing Holyrood Network Rail might embolden proponents of state ownership. The tracks and stations are already government-owned, why not pick up the trains in the January sales too? To many on the Left, the logic will be irresistible.
There is another problem with these proposals. It has nothing to do with resources or infrastructure or contract-tendering. It’s about process but not in the arid, recondite sense.
Reform Scotland’s report emerges from that vast entanglement of groupthink known as ‘civic Scotland’, an echo chamber in which devolution is practised as a religion and a particularly evangelical one at that. There are a thousand of reports like this, from think tanks, charities, and advocacy groups, many of them well-meaning but all of them macerated in the same heady brew. They’re drunk on Holyrood, intoxicated by permanent devolution.
The problem has yet to be invented that can’t be solved by a few more powers leaving London for Edinburgh.
This is an enthusiasm not shared by the public. A September poll revealed that one in five voters wants to abolish the Scottish Parliament. This finding has prompted no evident soul-searching among the narrow, insular political and public policy establishment that passes for the great and good in Scotland.
No one is making much effort to understand these people and certainly no one is interested in representing them. They encounter proposals like these and are perplexed. Didn’t we say No? Didn’t we win? Why are will still debating what additional constitutional goodies to dole out to the Nationalists?
Devolution is a mechanism, not a mission. It should be used wisely, in the best interests of the people and the Union. It should not be an article of faith but the soul of pragmatism.
It must respect the outcome of the 2014 referendum, when Scotland had its say and decided to remain part of the UK. Devolution is not a consolation prize for the SNP, allowing them to accrue powers and ease the country into an eventual separation.
If transferring powers from Westminster to Holyrood has become an end in itself, if devolution is nothing more than evolving independence, it has failed.
Rather than rush to send more powers northwards, or devolve yet another British institution into the hands of the SNP, the UK Parliament should consider what Nicola Sturgeon has done with the vast array she currently has.
A First Minister who loudly demands more powers then has to be cajoled into using them is not someone in need of a shiny new train set.
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Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Contact Stephen at firstname.lastname@example.org.