Transport Matters: Winter of discontent

A Scotrail electric train of the type to be used for the local services between Berwick and Edinburgh calling at Reston.
A Scotrail electric train of the type to be used for the local services between Berwick and Edinburgh calling at Reston.

Transport is one of the powers devolved to the Scottish Government, which is why questions have been asked about the decision to award the next Scotrail franchise, to begin on 1st April 2015, to Abellio rather than nationalise it.

The answer is probably that re-nationalising railway operation in Britain is expressly forbidden by the Railways Act 1993, so that it is only the power to award the franchise within the permitted parameters which is available to the Scottish Government rather than the power to change the franchising system, or abandon it altogether.

It may well be that people would have felt less inclined to complain if the incumbent operator, First Group, which is Scottish, had won the competition, but the whole point of competition is that the winner has to be the candidate offering the best deal. The people who complain to me about my appreciation of the quality of railway operation in the Netherlands, and tell me that I should be joining in the clamour for railways in Britain to be re-nationalised, are therefore complaining about the wrong thing.

Re-nationalisation of the railways in any form on a permanent basis can only be done when the Act is modified, and the Labour party has said that it will do that when it is re-elected.

The reason it did not when it had the opportunity between 1997 and 2010 can only be that there was not the discontent during its lengthy period in office which there now is with the franchising system.

The discontent started in 2007 with GNER having to ‘hand the keys back’ through no fault of its own, but because of the financial problems of its holding company. GNER was generally reckoned to be the best of the franchised rail operators, and its staff and customers were not happy when it had to relinquish the franchise.

National Express then took it on with an ambitious bid which it was not able to sustain as the recession took hold in 2009. It boiled up further when First Group made what was generally thought to be an unsustainable bid for the West Coast Main Line in 2012, and the Department for Transport cancelled the process and gave the incumbent operator (Virgin Trains) an extension to 2017.

In the privatisation of an essential public service there has to be a safety net to ensure that service continues even in the event of the failure of a provider, so in the case of the railway the Government set up Directly Operated Railways to act as the provider of last resort, and DOR has been happily operating the East Coast Main Line since 2009.

It would normally have been expected that the East Coast franchise would be put out to tender long before this, but because of the West Coast fiasco it has taken much longer than it should have done.

However, the new operator has now been chosen and is due to start on February 1.

The choice was between a French consortium and one of the two Scottish operators, First Group and Stagecoach. Rumour had it that it was to go to the French, but there was a delay in making the announcement, and when it came to it, it was awarded to Stagecoach in a consortium with Virgin Trains in which Stagecoach is very much the senior partner.

One really sensible thing which the present Scotrail operators have done, though whether on their own initiative or at the behest of the government is unclear, has been to adopt a Scotrail colour scheme which is not operator-specific and can be carried on by the next incumbent without alteration.

The accompanying photograph, taken by Russell Darling, is of the type of train which will run to Berwick calling at Reston.

I make no apology for the fact that this photograph has previously graced this column, as Russell represents the Rail Action Group for Eastern Scotland (RAGES) which has campaigned relentlessly for many years to achieve this outcome.

However, in typically British fashion, although plans to reopen Reston station have been in the air since 1979, when the writer raised the question with the railway management, and it is now fairly firmly established that the train service to Berwick will start in December 2016, there is apparently some doubt as to whether the station will actually be ready to open at that time.

Another aspect of transport which is devolved to Scotland is now speed limits on the roads.

It will be really interesting to see how that responsibility is discharged, and with what imagination.

When motor vehicles made their appearance on our roads they were restricted to 2mph, which was raised in 1904 to 10mph in urban areas and elsewhere to 20mph for cars and 12mph for larger vehicles.

By 1935 the limits had risen in urban areas to 30mph for passenger vehicles and 20mph for goods vehicles.

Outside urban areas there was no limit for cars, but the limit for goods vehicles remained at 20mph until 1957, when it was raised to 30mph, and then to 40mph in 1967.

Cars, from being generally de-restricted outside urban areas, became subject to the newly-created National Speed Limit of 70mph late in 1965, since when the limits have been gradually refined to their present pattern.

It is apparent that some of the present limits are too high, and there have been proposals to refine them further.

I very much hope that the Scottish Government takes the opportunity to adopt some entirely new bands such as 55mph in place of 60mph on some single carriageway rural roads, and 25mph in place of 30mph in some of the urban areas.

John Wylde is the author of ‘Integrated Transport – a Will-o’-the-wisp?’ (HYPERLINK “http://www.john-wylde.co.uk/” www.john-wylde.co.uk). This book, priced at £14.95, is available to readers for £11.95 post paid and signed by the author. Order from the Berwickshire News office.