John Finnie MSP calls for a public operator to replace the Dutch-owned rail company as staff shortages lead to widescale disruption
- Green transport spokesperson calls for an end to Abellio’s ScotRail contract six years early
- Between April 2018 and January 2019, 2,691 ScotRail services were cancelled due to lack of staff
- Latest controversy follows calls from TSSA for the rail service to be nationalised
ABELLIO, the Dutch-owned rail operator in control of the ScotRail franchise, has faced fresh calls from the Scottish Greens to be stripped of its contract and replaced by a public operator, following huge breakdowns in service caused by staff shortages.
This follows the news today [5 February] that staff shortages have caused the cancellation of thousands of ScotRail services since last year.
According to new figures, a total of 2,691 ScotRail services were cancelled due to lack of staff between April 2018 and 16 January 2019. Additionally, the disruption caused by retraining ScotRail staff on the operation of new Hitachi class 385 electric trains – which ScotRail claimed would lead to the "best railway Scotland has ever had" - led to an average of 46 services a day cancelled towards the end of last year.
Responding to the news, Scottish Greens Transport spokesperson John Finnie MSP said: “The rollout of new trains and the implementation of a new timetable should not have come as a surprise to Scotrail, yet it seems to have been totally unprepared to deal with events.
“Abellio clearly hasn’t employed enough staff to fulfil its contractual obligations, this is an issue I recently raised with the Transport Secretary, and one I was told was being resolved. A lack of staff not only impacts on the service passengers receive, it also puts existing staff under severe pressure.
“My constituents in the Highlands, and those across the country, rightly expect a quality service - after all they pay enough for it - and that quality service is not being delivered. It is time for Mr Matheson to strip Abellio of this contract, and put in place a public operator.”
Acknowledging that it had been a “challenging” time for the railway service, a ScotRail spokesperson said: “While we know that our performance has not been good enough, it is encouraging to see our punctuality continuing to improve across the country.
"Everyone at the ScotRail Alliance is working flat out to provide customers with the service they deserve. We are training more than 20 drivers and conductors every day, and this will deliver continual improvements in the coming weeks and months."
However, Mick Hogg, Scottish organiser of the RMT union, was harsh in his appraisal of ScotRail’s explanation, saying: "ScotRail is busy blaming everyone else about these cancellations but they were warned well in advance that they needed to get a grip of the training situation.
"The new trains and timetable changes were not surprise events, if they had been more organised then the impact on ScotRail staff and the travelling public would not have been as bad."
A Transport Scotland spokesman also commented: "ScotRail's performance hasn't been good enough particularly in terms of the high level of cancellations and performance issues. That's why we took the serious contractual step of issuing a remedial plan notice and we expect ScotRail to implement measures swiftly.
"While it is clear late delivery of rolling stock and train crew shortages compounded by the previous industrial action had an impact, performance across the United Kingdom has not been good.
"Many underlying issues are endemic across UK rail franchises - this indicates a fundamental flaw in the current structural arrangements."
The latest criticism of Abellio follows calls in January this year from the TSSA union for Scottish rail services to be nationalised, after ScotRail offered extra compensation to some passengers and apologised for its “unacceptable” services.
TSSA general secretary Manuel Cortes argued that passengers were “rightly angry” after being “let down” by ScotRail, saying: "2019 started with yet more late and cancelled trains and overcrowding is at an all-time high. Blame belongs with Abellio and their team of senior managers.
"Poor planning, deliberate understaffing of the railway and trying to do things on the cheap are not the fault of our members who do their best in tough circumstances."
Following TSSA-organised protests, transport secretary Michael Matheson told MSPs in January that Abellio could lose its ScotRail franchise – currently due to end in 2025 - if a “remedial plan” did not improve performance. The plan itself is expected to be submitted this month, and will be closely monitored.
Matheson said: "They [Abellio] are very clear about how serious this is for them as franchise holder. That could ultimately result in them losing the franchise."
However, Matheson argued, only when full powers over ScotRail’s alliance partner Network Rail are devolved to Holyrood could the Scottish rail system be managed properly.
TSSA called on Matheson to resign in October after the Transport Secretary waived Abellio’s compliance peformance targets, benchmarks which the rail operator is legally obliged to meet until June 2019, something the union described as giving Abellio “carte blanche to fail”.
Picture courtesy of David Brossard
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