A Public Future for Scotland’s Railways

Overview —

This joint report from Common Weal and TSSA looks at how public ownership could be the start of a transformation in Scotland’s transport system.

The report makes the case for the full nationalisation of Scotland’s railways with the responsibilities for the line, the service provision and provision of the rolling stock brought under one organisation.


Lewis Bloss

Download Now

For too long in Scotland, ScotRail has been run in the interests of private concerns intent on making a profit at the expense of the passenger and the tax payer but there has always been an alternative. That alternative – public ownership – was deliberately outlawed by the Westminster government through the terms of the 1993 Railways Act and since then the system has been tweaked but the fundamental ethos has not changed.

Privatisation was supposed to bring private sector investment and introduce competition that would cut rail fares but this hasn’t come to pass. Instead, the record investment has mostly come from the tax payer, competition has been virtually non existent and passengers have had to pay rail fares that are amongst the highest in Europe.

Now, in Scotland, at this time, there is an opportunity to change, to be radical, to think again about what we want from our railways and the passenger train services that so many of us use.


― Railways should be publicly run – Scotland’s rail system is currently structured in a complex manner, which mainly reflects the legacy of the Britain-wide privatisation experiment initiated by the Major Government’s 1993 Railways Act. For the past two decades, Scottish passenger services have been run by a succession of private and foreign state-owned train operating companies (TOCs), which in turn lease their rolling stock from privately-owned rolling stock operating companies (ROSCOs). Scottish rail infrastructure was also privatised, but is now once again publicly-owned by the UK public body Network Rail.

― Before privatisation, public ownership and operation of the railways under British Rail was far more efficient than some popular caricature suggests. Indeed, by the 1980s British Rail outstripped many of its European counterparts in these terms, despite suffering from sustained underinvestment and uncertainty regarding funding. Nowadays, the picture is reversed: the government funnel vastly increased levels of public subsidy into a rail system which has become far less efficient than others around Europe.

― The privatised British rail system is an aberration both historically and internationally. Given the dominance in the Scottish Parliament of political parties open to the principle of public operation, the railways in Scotland should not have to continue to conform to this model. Yet until recently, Holyrood has had little ability to fundamentally alter thenature of the rail system in Scotland.

― Scotrail should be taken over by a public-sector body at the earliest available opportunity – As of 2016, however, the Scottish Government can fund and entertain public-sector bids for the Scotrail franchise, presenting Holyrood with the opportunity to make a significant break from the past two decades of short termist, often dysfunctional, and dogmatic UK rail policy when the current Scotrail franchise expires. This will provisionally be in 2025, but could be as soon as 2020 (with the new operator beginning in 2022) if Abellio is judged to be failing to meet its contractual obligations.

― A publicly-owned Scotrail would be better placed to deliver beyond any specified, minimum obligations with regards to unprofitable social and environmental aspirations, and expansion to boost economic growth and activity, than current and past operators. Indeed public operation would also present an opportunity to incorporate greater responsiveness to social needs into governance structures.

― In the long-term, a permanent public-sector Scotrail should be a fundamental part of a reformed, revitalised Scottish rail network.

― The bringing about of a publicly-run Scotrail should prove the catalyst for a broader rethinking of the role our railways ought to play in Scotland’s overall long-term transport strategy. In 2017, social, economic and environmental imperatives demand that we start to think of rail travel as a fundamental public service, similar to how we see the roads at present, rather than as just another consumer product best left as the responsibility of competing private companies.

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top