Even in these troubling times, spare a thought for Jenny Gilruth MSP, appointed Transport Minister in January and, since 1 April, given ultimate responsibility for the management of a railway system with an annual revenue of £397.5m (2019-20) and an operating budget of £1,264m (2020-21).
In the 100 years since 1923, the Scottish railway system has been firstly the property of two pan-British limited companies, secondly, in 1948, a 'region' of the nationalised British Railways, then, in 1992, a 'franchise' of the privatised railways; and is now an 'arm's length' company, Scottish Rail Holdings, owned and controlled by the Scottish Government. My book, Scottish Railways 1923-2016,
gives an account of the first three of these hastily-implemented changes and the subsequent fall-out.
But what does Scottish Rail Holdings actually own? The rails, stations and all the infrastructure are the property of Network Rail Ltd, a 'non-dividend' company owned by the UK Government, and regulated by the Office of Road & Rail (ORR) on behalf of the Department for Transport. Network Rail receives funding from the Scottish Government for its work in maintaining, developing and extending the 'assets' of the network in Scotland, which it likes to call 'Scotland's Railway', but it is not autonomous and is ultimately answerable to London. The trains used by ScotRail are not owned by the company but are leased, mostly from Hitachi. Scottish Rail Holdings own the right and responsibility to manage the passenger train franchise.
While ScotRail provides the great majority of internal services, several other train companies operate partly in Scotland, including the Caledonian Sleeper franchise, run by Serco on a contract that expires in 2030. Other passenger services are TransPennine Express, LNER, Avanti West Coast and Cross Country.
Rail freight is not part of Scottish Rail Holding's brief and none of the six rail-freight companies is located in Scotland. Freight has been a neglected area for over three decades, but since 2019 there has been a modest target in place of a 7.5% increase in ton-miles by 2024.
Present development includes new stations about to be opened at Reston and Inverness Airport, and work is in hand to restore the line between Thornton and Leven. There is a long list of other proposals for new stations on existing lines, reinstating of closed lines, and creation of new links: the cost of achieving even half of these would run into trillions of pounds. Within the railway planning world, there are tensions between the desire for new stations – extra stops slow down traffic and reduce the number of train-paths – and the desire to improve intercity journey times.
Additionally to plans and demands for improved services, there is an ambitious programme being undertaken by Transport Scotland for total decarbonisation of the railway system by 2035. This will involve extension of the electrified network to Inverness, Dumfries/Gretna and Aberdeen, and the use of alternative traction technology on non-electrified lines, either transitional or permanent. As the alternative technologies envisaged have not been fully developed, and the entire programme has not yet been costed, 'ambitious' is perhaps an understatement. It's the kind of thing they do in China, but China has a command-economy. Scotland does not.
Scottish Rail Holdings is intended to 'provide separation between Transport Scotland as a whole, as strategic policy makers, and the direct management of train service delivery (ScotRail Trains Ltd)'. It has an experienced railwayman, Bill Gibb, at its head, but a poor start has been made by a refusal to disclose what he and his co-directors will be paid. In a publicly-owned industry, openness is surely an essential.
There is also an amorphous non-statutory body called 'Scotland's Railway'. Originally based on a partnership in planning and action between Network Rail and the former franchise holder, Abellio, with Abellio ScotRail's Alex Hyne as its managing director, it has widened to include Transport Scotland, the RailDelivery Group, Transport Focus (a UK-wide executive non-departmental public body, specifically 'representing the interests of rail users in Scotland'), the Office of Road and Rail, and over 130 suppliers of equipment and services (but the railway staff unions are conspicuous absentees).
Its stated aim is: 'By working together to promote positive leadership and behaviours across all levels within the Scottish Rail industry, we are enabling dynamic, evidence-based decisions to be made at the right level and the right time', and 'we are actively embracing new techniques and new thinking'.
While the self-congratulatory stories in the 'stakeholders' reports' issued by Network Rail do show evidence of real collaboration between train operators and track owners, it has the air of an industry caucus established to protect and enhance the roles of those within it and to avoid or avert the critical attention of those outside (who are paying for it).
The intersecting circles of Scottish railway governance and operation make a Venn diagram look absurdly simple. From the minister's office to ScotRail Trains Ltd, via Transport Scotland and Scottish Rail Holdings, not to mention the London bodies, may be a tortuous path. Ms Gilruth has a lot on her plate. It must be hoped that she will be a fast learner. From her remarks so far, it seems that despite the government's established commitment to nationalising ScotRail, there is actually no prepared plan for running it. She is clear that 'much work still needs to be done' and wants to 'kickstart a National Conversation' about the kind of railway people want.
It might seem to the observer that it has been obvious for several years what kind of railway people want, and the task of government is to enable it as quickly and effectively as possible.
David Ross is an author and freelance historian