22 October 2014


The Scottish Review is published weekly by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland

Editor: Kenneth Roy
Deputy Editor: Islay McLeod

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* This week's banner: Glasgow Central Station. But is your journey really necessary? Photograph by Islay McLeod

Off the Rails I
The network's 'worst'
will soon be running
Scotland's trains
Kenneth Roy

Mary Grant, Falkirk High, Keith Brown

When Mary Grant was asked out of the blue if she would lead National Express's bid for the ScotRail franchise, her response was immediate. 'To be perfectly honest,' she said at the time, 'I didn't need to think about it. It took me less than a minute to accept'.

The deal was that, if the company won the franchise, she would stay on to run Scotland's railway network for the second time in her career. For four years from 2004, the Glasgow-based businesswoman was managing director of ScotRail, achieving passenger growth of 20% and record levels of customer satisfaction.

As one leading executive in the industry put it: 'She was the most outstanding managing director I have worked with in 25 years on the railways. She is second to none, straight and effective'.

It seemed like a dream return ticket, matching National Express's resources to Mary Grant's abilities, and made the company industry favourite to become the beneficiary of the biggest contract ever awarded by the Scottish Government – worth around £6bn (repeat, billion) in sales and subsidies over its 10-year life.

But when transport minister Keith Brown announced the outcome of the franchise earlier this month, the prize went neither to National Express nor to the out-of-favour incumbent, Aberdeen's FirstGroup. Instead it was awarded to a Dutch operator, Abellio.

The news angered the rail unions. RMT's general secretary said it was scandalous that 'just a few weeks after the referendum and promises from all quarters that the Scottish people would have an increased say in every aspect of their lives', the SNP administration had committed itself to continued privatisation.

Political opponents were just as bemused. Why, they asked, could the award of the contract not have been delayed until Lord Smith's commission on extra powers for Holyrood had had an opportunity to review the future of Scotland's railways?

But the Scottish Government's love affair with its new partner from the Netherlands is baffling for another reason, as SR has discovered.

Since February 2012, Abellio has been operating a rail franchise south of the border. Last year, its performance on the Greater Anglia routes earned it the dubious distinction of being named the second-worst train operating company in the country in the annual Which? magazine survey.

Keith Brown was effusive about Abellio's plans for ScotRail, including the all-too-familiar populism of 'reduced fares for jobseekers and advance fares of £5 between any two Scottish cities' (though no mention of action to discourage anti-social behaviour on trains: not so populist). This promise is likely to be cynically received in Greater Anglia, where consumers pinpointed poor value for money as the main reason for their dissatisfaction with the company.

We checked out Abellio's service by phoning its booking line and selecting the second of eight options – to speak to a human being. 'There's a bit of a queue,' said the automated voice, 'but we'll get to you as soon as possible'. After a minute or so of discordant music, a person did come on the line.

We inquired about the cost of a season ticket from Chelmsford to London, a journey of less than 40 minutes.

'Do you want to include the cost of underground travel in London?'

'No, we'll walk when we get there.'

'Then for a monthly, it's £349.50. You'd be better off with an annual season at £3,640.' (A saving of £554.)

'Thank you.'

'You're welcome.'

In February this year, the second anniversary of the arrival of Abellio in the unsuspecting east of England, Which? published the results of its latest survey of rail travel. Abellio Greater Anglia had moved from second-worst in 2013 to joint worst in the country in 2014. For cleanliness, it was out on its own – the dirtiest in the network.

By last month, the litany of complaints covered not only ticket prices and the state of the carriages but poor punctuality and reliability. A Suffolk MP, Dan Poulter, told the company that his constituents were exasperated by 'constant problems with the service' and transport minister Simon Burns – Keith Brown's opposite number at Westminster – said he was not surprised by the negative findings about Abellio's performance.

One commuter on the Lowestoft-Norwich line, Nick Hannant, became so fed up that he started to keep a diary of his experiences with Abellio. It recorded that, on an average of three of the five days a week he uses the service, there are delays or cancellations. They have made him late for work, late for important meetings, and late home in the evening. Mr Hannant has spent hundreds of pounds on buses and taxis after being let down by Abellio.

'The service is sub-standard, continually late and quite frankly an embarrassment,' he says. 'One day I waited at my local station 30 minutes for a train that had been cancelled. No one informed me. I got a taxi at a cost of £20 so that I could get to a meeting. Coming back in the evening, they laid on a single carriage train at rush hour. People were crammed eyeball to eyeball'.

Richard Lloyd of Which?, surveying the less than glowing endorsement of Britain's privatised railways in successive surveys by the magazine, said: 'Train companies are consistently falling down on their customer service. We want to see passengers' experiences put right at the heart of the tender process'.

If passengers' experiences had been 'put right at the heart of the tender process' in Scotland – if the administration had listened to the testimonies of commuters in Greater Anglia – serious questions would have been asked about the award of a £6bn contract to this company.

Although the process of awarding Scotland's rail franchise has not exactly been a model of transparency – one might have expected better of the much-lauded Holyrood style of open democracy – it seems there was little to choose between the bids of Abellio and National Express. What the latter had in its favour was the track record – almost literally in this case – of a universally respected industry figure, Mary Grant.

We must put aside the unworthy thought that, having ruled out FirstGroup and faced with the prospect of awarding the contract to a British multinational headquartered in England, the Scottish Government decided it would rather make a positive contribution to the bottom line of a company owned in continental Europe.

Next: Why are we being forced to sleep with Serco?