Rail 755: Scotland – what will independence mean for the railways?

Here’s an irony. Just as Scotland is voting to break off from England with the possibility of needing a a passport to travel between the two countries, the Scottish sleeper services between the two are about to be greatly upgraded.

The prospect for the old sleeper services is indeed an exciting one. I have used them numerous times over the years and while I enjoy them enormously, there is no doubt that have address a 20th century feel to them. The trains are old, there is a slight grubby atmosphere – despite the attentions of the mostly excellent staff – and more often than not I seem to be sleeping over a wheel flat.

Therefore although Serco has promised new trains for 2018, in the meantime the company has promised that in April when it takes over the franchise from FirstGroup (it was previously part of the Scotrail contract but will in future be separate) it will give the trains a ‘deep clean’ and the company will embark on a major marketing initiative. That is a slightly risky idea if one remembers what happened to Virgin when it took over West Coast, but Serco will also try to ensure there are immediate service improvements such as allowing people on the trains earlier and enabling them to book prior to the normal 12 week window, which currentlyrather discourages foreign tourists on trips planned well in advance from using the trains.

Then in 2018, when the new trains arrive, Serco promises a completely different type of service. In another piece of irony, the purchase of the trains, reckoned to cost around £100m, was largely funded by the UK government as the result of a promise made in the Budget two years ago by George Osborne (shame they can’t bring back the old luxurious trains that were earmarked for Cross Channel services using the tunnel which were never brought into service in the UK but instead sent off to Canada). There will be four different levels of service and the top one will include en suite toilet and shower. There are even discussions about stopping off at various other places, perhaps even in England, to offer a sleeper service to new destinations.

However, independence would put rather a spoke in the wheels of these plans. It could, for example, greatly damp down demand for travel between the two countries as traditional links are severed. Even if that is not the case, it will undoubtedly add great complexity to the arrangements as the whole SNP plan for creating an independent Scotland is fraught with difficult issues.

The Scottish Government issued a document earlier this year setting out the implications of independence which included a section on the railways. In fact, the Scottish government already has a great measure of control over the country’s railways and it is since devolution that line reopenings have proceeded much faster than before. This is put down by one Scottish source as ‘the fact that the Scottish government was able to devote time and resources to examining properly the case for reopenings, something that would not have happened if power had remained in Westminster’.

Transport Scotland, a government agency, is in charge of the Scotrail franchise and is in the process of letting a new 10 year contract starting in April, with a possible five year extension. Already five bidders, including the incumbent First (who are not favourites by any means) have been shortlisted and the Scottish government has said that a vote for independence will not stop the process.

So, initially there will be no change. However, the government’s statement does suggest some changes in the longer term. In particular it argues that ‘the current franchise model is unnecessarily constrained by the limits imposed by UK legislation. In the future, an independent Scotland will be free to pursue legislation that enabled alternative approaches, including public-supported and not-for-profit models. ‘ This is a rather strange statement since, in practice, there is nothing at the moment to stop the Scottish government looking at different ways of letting its franchise. However, this is politics, not common sense.

ASLEF, the trade union, has expressed concerns over the implications. In a statement, it questioned what would happen to cross border services, operated by Virgin, East Coast, CrossCountry and TransPennine. It is a good question. There is no doubt that operating in two separate legislative administrations would pose complexity and, indeed, cost on the industry. Moreover, political decisions come into play. Such services, particularly the more local ones, are highly subsidised, and the UK government may decided to cut back on them if they are mainly use by citizens from north of the border.

ASLEF raises a good example: ‘London to Preston is extremely profitable. This allows the line north of Preston which is not profitable to rely on profit from the rest of the line leading to a smaller state subsidy. If the profitable section of this line resides in England with the loss making line in Scotland, will the Scottish taxpayers be required to pay a high subsidy to the franchise owner?’ Gosh I can already imagine the headaches for the civil servants and politicians that such questions will pose. ASLEF points out that this could mean that Scottish people are paying out great subsidies for a service they have no necessarily specified. And so on.

The Scottish government has ambitious plans to improve its rail service. The SNP has been quite supportive of rail, though more recently it seems to be veering towards greater spending on roads. At the moment, however, uncertainty prevails. It would be great shame if the rail improvements of recent times north of the border and the the wonderful service being promised by Serco were jeopardised by a vote for independence.

And worse, what if passengers on the sleepers have their nights ruined by officious customs officers shaking them awake. Gestapo style, in the middle of the night to demand their passports? Not likely, agreed, as my bet is that the ‘Better Together’ campaign will prevail, but you never know. And I bet Serco did not factor that possibility into its bid.


Labour still in limbo over franchising

With various leaks and statements, it seemed that Labour’s plans for rail franchising, should the party win next year’s election, had been settled. The treasury team led by Ed balls was wary of any commitment to take the franchises back in house as they ran out, worrying that this would be seen as ‘anti-business’ which in this day and age is tantamount, apparently, to a death sentence for any political party.

However, the party activists were keen to push this through gradual renationalisation and baulked at the compromise of merely allowing a state owned in house organisation to bid for any franchises that came up. This, as I have argued too, was seen as the worst of all worlds, angering the private sector, causing the government extra expense in drawing up bids and probably resulting in the status quo since the private operators would be very keen to see off a state owned company.

The issue needed to be resolved at the party’s policy forum in Milton Keynes in July so that it could shape the contents of the manifesto. And to the outside world it seemed matters had indeed been settled with victory for Balls.

Not so. While, yes, the idea of having a state-owned bidder was agreed, the policy forum’s deliberations – or rather frantic talks in a van in the car park of the hall where the meeting was taking place between unions and senior Labour party officials – resulted in yet another compromise. Shadow ministers also had to agree that ‘we need to end the presumption against the public sector” in official documents and that there would be a ‘review of the failed franchising process’. There would also be ‘an end to the fare- setting powers of the operators’ but this rather belies the fact that the government sets the regulated fares and that there will be a high cost in taking away any power of the operators to set fares on their own trains – would every advanced fare, for example, have to be set by the government. As I said in the adjoining piece, this is politics not common sense!

There was also confusion over what was meant by the promise that Labour would set up a new rail authority to take control of rolling stock- I doubt very much if there is any plan to spend billions in buying it back off the rolling stock companies.

What this means if Labour is in power – or sharing it in a coalition – therefore remains unclear. It was a classic fudge and I suspect it is a recipe for yet more fraught discussions, possibly in Downing Street rather than a van in a Milton Keynes car park, after May 2015. It will doubtless give this column plenty to write about.

  • RapidAssistant

    As much as I love the Anglo-Scottish sleeper train myself, the reality is it is being kept for purely sentimental reasons rather than any hard business case (rich coming from me, admittedly, but this one is the exception). It accounts for a relatively tiny percentage of the total cross-border passenger traffic, in fact one of its biggest users are Scottish MPs and civil servants based in Westminster who use it to commute – who of course would be out of a job if Scotland votes for Independence!! Personally I don’t see any justification for making such a massive investment replacing the current Mark 3 SLEP stock – it has only a fraction of the mileage and use of its “daytime” equivalent, and the trains, even though they are 32 years old – are still in excellent shape, Ok I will admit to being a bit nostalgic here as they are about the only trains on the network that are still in their pure, original, unadulterated British Rail form.

    Lastly to the issue of independence – as a skeptical Yes voter two things jar with me here:

    – Firstly, the idea that there would be passport checks is utterly preposterous. There is already an international border within the British Isles – between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and cross-border expresses between Belfast and Dublin have been operating seamlessly for decades – even during the height of the Troubles. Under the 1949 Ireland Act (Section 2.1), the Republic of Ireland is not even considered a foreign nation in a legal sense (although it is in a de facto sense), which is what fundamentally allows an open border. Let us not forget that international rail services on the Continent whiz across borders within the Schengen area routinely. Daily. Hourly. Indeed – suggesting the idea of being woken up at Carlisle by border guards is a bit Daily Mail-ish (I expected better from you, Christian!) and sadly representative of some of the hysterical, desperate and quite frankly dangerous media coverage that has been coming out of Fleet Street in the last week or two, which has only served to inflame and enrage the Scottish independence debate even more, and ultimately drive Scottish voters who are at heart, against secession – towards the Yes campaign. Rant Over.

    – Yes its true that the Scottish Government have increased the proportion of road vs rail spending. But bear in mind the level of rail investment we’ve seen in terms of line re-openings and electrification schemes is still at a level that still can only be dreamed of south of the border. Ask most people in Scotland and the two “big ticket” items at the moment in terms of road spending – namely the second Forth Road Bridge and the dualling of the A9 between Perth and Inverness (the latter in particular) are considered of vital importance.

    But that’s my personal opinion……

  • paulf78

    A good point I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere. Lets say that a newly independent Scotland applies to join the EU and are accepted at some point in the future (when all membership negotiations are concluded). What happens if a condition on their EU membership is they become part of the Schengen area?

    Part of the reason expresses can run between Northern Ireland and RoI unhindered by border controls is because NI and RoI are not in the Schengen area. If that Belfast to Dublin express continued through some undersea tunnel to Paris passengers would need their passport. There may be free movement between NI and RoI but the only way to enter/exit the island of Ireland (other than into Great Britain) is through passport controls.

    If you travel on Eurostar between the UK and continental Europe (i.e. crossing the border in/out of the Schengen area) and you’ll face the usual border controls that require a passport.

    Ultimately, Christian’s point about sleeper passengers being woken at the Scottish border to show passports may not be fantasy nor the kind of hysterical Dail Heil story Rapid Assistant claims below. Should this situation come to pass I would expect border controls to be performed before boarding the train as Eurostar does now but that would increase costs on the operator (Serco) and greatly limit the number of stops enroute as each stop would need a segregated border control area. This would undermine Christian’s hope that the improved sleeper service could expand to other destinations thus killing possible extra revenues – FTA: “There are even discussions about stopping off at various other places,
    perhaps even in England, to offer a sleeper service to new destinations”

  • paulf78
  • Dan

    Did no one ever travel in Europe by train BEFORE the schengen agreement etc? I seem to recall at borders passport check staff got on the train, the train moved off, and they checked the passports on the move. I seem to recall it even happening this way when I traveled from West to East Germany before the wall came down in 1988. ie it was not that hard to get to the Eastern Bloc.

    As for RoI I seem to recall that because of the terms of the 1922 settlement strictly speaking you do not need a passport to go from England (well I should say Wales) to Eire.

  • Dan

    So will people who board the Sottish sleepers tonight in England wake up tomorrow in an independent Scotland. I wish I’d bought a ticket some time ago

  • RapidAssistant

    Well it’s all conjecture now really isn’t it LOL