Scottish input ‘would have stopped West Coast fiasco’
By Keith Aitken in Edinburgh | 4 October 2012
The UK government might have avoided the West Coast rail franchise debacle had it been prepared to involve Holyrood in the process, Scotland’s transport minister told MSPs this afternoon.
Keith Brown lambasted the UK Department for Transport for failing to consult Scottish ministers or their officials in Transport Scotland either over the franchise process or over this week’s decision to abort it.
He said the DfT had insisted that Scottish ministers had no place in the process. This was despite the fact that the railway line was ‘of crucial importance to the economies of our major cities’ and that FirstGroup, whose winning bid was now null and void, was one of Scotland’s biggest businesses.
‘Perhaps if we had been more involved in the process we could have given it some of the benefit of the experience that people in Transport Scotland have,’ Brown told MSPs.
‘It is absolutely scandalous that, because of this, a very prominent Scottish company lost a fifth of its value in a few hours yesterday,’ he added. ‘The ready contempt that there seems to be for the people of Scotland is one of the most distressing aspects of the episode.’
Brown said that his repeated attempts to contact the DfT after learning of the franchise cancellation via yesterday’s morning radio news had eventually yielded a ‘bizarre’ call from a UK minister.
Strategic rail operations are reserved to Westminster. The Scottish Government, through Transport Scotland, awards the ScotRail franchise, but it has to stick largely within UK rules. Brown said Scotland had retained a longer period than the UK for evaluating bids, and had resisted the UK preference for 15-year contracts because of the difficulty of projecting out-turns so far ahead.
Scottish Tory transport spokesman Alex Johnstone accused Brown of scaremongering over the maintenance of services on the line, of which he had been assured. But other parties’ spokespeople bitterly criticised the DfT’s performance.
Labour’s Elaine Murray called it ‘a fiasco of jaw-dropping proportions’, while the Greens’ Patrick Harvie said it confirmed that train operations should be in the public sector.