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MSPs reject Labour proposals to end ScotRail franchise early

The party had received backing from transport unions including Aslef, the TSSA and the RMT.

ScotRail: MSPs have rejected calls to end the franchise early.
ScotRail: MSPs have rejected calls to end the franchise early. SWNS

MSPs have rejected calls from Labour for the Scottish Government to end the ScotRail franchise early.

The party had received backing from transport unions including Aslef, the TSSA and the RMT for rail in Scotland to be brought into public ownership.

But MSPs on Wednesday voted by 85 to 32 against the Labour proposal, which had urged the Government not to extend the franchise beyond its current expiry date of 2022.

It comes after figures highlighted earlier this week suggested 74,514 trains have been cancelled since Dutch firm Abellio began running the service in April 2015 - a rate of around 327 a week.

Speaking at Holyrood, Scottish Labour MSP Colin Smyth warned against an extension of the current agreement.

"Extending the franchise, frankly, would reward failure," said Mr Smyth.

"It would send a signal to private rail operators that it doesn't matter how poor your performance is, you won't ever have to deliver on your franchise targets.

"Ending the franchise in 2022, however, would give the Government two years to put in place a public sector operator bid.

"I hope in that time we'll see a change of UK Government - a Labour government would end the wasteful and inefficient franchising system altogether, repealing the Tories' 1993 Railways Act so we can have a proper public ownership of our railways, bringing train and track together under a single, publicly-owned company with all decisions being made here in Scotland on Scottish routes.

"Even members who don't support public ownership must see that the current franchise is just not working."

Transport secretary Michael Matheson outlined investment of £8bn made by the Scottish Government in rail improvements in Scotland, as well as setting high performance standards above those set elsewhere in the UK.

However, he acknowledged that elements of ScotRail's operations "have not performed to the levels specified and required by this Government".

Remedial notices were issued to ScotRail over the last year, requiring it to set out how it will address performance issues.

Mr Matheson also called for MSPs to back the Government's aim to gain full public sector control of the structure, governance and operation of the Scottish railway system.

He said: "The existing franchise system is costly and complex. In my view it is no longer fit for purpose.

"Under current UK legislation we only have the power to franchise for the running of rail services in Scotland. We have secured the right for a public sector body to compete for a franchise, but it leaves us with the same broken franchise process and the complicated rail system we have today.

"Let me be clear, the decision on the future of the ScotRail franchise will be based on a rigorous and detailed evaluation of what is the right thing to do for passengers, communities and the taxpayer.

"But simply ending the contract early will not wave a magic wand to fix the challenges we have on our railways. And rushing into a decision to end a franchise early without correct due diligence would not be in passengers' or the Scottish taxpayers' interest."

The transport secretary also welcomed a rail review established by the UK Government, adding that it "has the potential to reform the structures of Scotland's railways in a positive way".

Scottish Conservative transport spokesman Jamie Greene questioned how cancelling the current contract would look to other franchisees.

He said: "Pulling the rug from under the feet of the current operator will do more harm than good.

"First of all, what message does that send? If you sign up to take on a franchise and invest billions of pounds and the political wind changes, they end your contract early."

Scottish Green transport spokesman John Finnie said: "I have to say, as a regular rail user I've experienced some of the frustration that others have.

"The public aren't interested in performance figures, they want to know that the train will turn up on time, and that it's clean.

"The operator of last resort? For vital public services the Government should be the operator of first and only resort."

Mike Rumbles, the Scottish Lib Dem transport spokesman, added: "We've had three remedial plans, not two, they've contained 249 action points, 20 improvement measures and now we have the current remedial plan with nine initiatives.

"Rather than endless initiatives and little improvement, the public simply want to have a railway that delivers the agreed level of service."

An Abellio ScotRail spokesman said afterwards: "We are pleased that Parliament has not taken a short term view of the future of Scotland's railway.

"It is vital the transformation of Scotland's railway continues. Our investment of £475m has already delivered more services, more seats, more jobs and new trains at less cost to the taxpayer.

"We recognise that we need to deliver the railway customers expect and deserve, and we are committed to completing that job during this franchise."

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