When Mary Grant was called out of the blue and asked if she would head National Express’s bid for the ScotRail franchise, her response was immediate. ‘To be perfectly honest’, she said, ‘I didn’t need to think about it. It took me less than a minute to accept’.
The deal was that, if the company won the hotly contested franchise, she would stay on to run Scotland’s railway network for the second time in her career. For four years from 2004, the Glasgow-based businesswoman was managing director of ScotRail, achieving passenger growth of 20% and record levels of customer satisfaction.
As one leading executive in the industry put it: ‘She was the most outstanding managing director I have worked with in 25 years on the railways. She is second to none, straight and effective’. It seemed like a dream return ticket, matching National Express’s resources to Mary Grant’s entrepreneurial gifts, and made the company industry favourite to become the beneficiary of the biggest contract ever awarded by the Scottish Government – worth around £6bn in sales and subsidies over its 10-year life.
But when the then transport minister Keith Brown announced the outcome of the franchise in October 2014, the prize went neither to National Express nor to the out-of-favour incumbent, Aberdeen’s FirstGroup – but to a Dutch operator, Abellio.
The news surprised the industry. Political opponents were just as bemused: how, they asked, could the award of the contract not have been delayed until Lord Smith’s commission on extra powers for Holyrood had had an opportunity to consider the alternative possibility of a non-profit company running the rail network?
But the Scottish Government’s love affair with its new partner was baffling for another reason – as SR discovered.
Since February 2012, Abellio had held a lucrative rail franchise south of the border. In 2013, for its performance on the Greater Anglia routes, it had the dubious distinction of being named the second-worst train operating company in the country in the Which?
Keith Brown was effusive about Abellio’s plans for Scotland, including the enticements of ‘reduced fares for jobseekers and advance fares of £5 between any two Scottish cities’. I wrote at the time that this promise was likely to be cynically received in Greater Anglia, where consumers pinipointed poor value for money as the main reason
for their dissatisfaction with the company.
SR checked out Abellio’s service by phoning its booking line and selecting the second of eight options – to speak to a human being. We asked about the cost of a season ticket from Chelmsford to London, a journey of 25 minutes.
‘Do you want me to include the cost of underground travel in London?’.
‘No, we’ll walk when we get there’.
‘Then for a monthly, it’s £349.50. You’d be better off with an annual season of £3,640’. (A saving of £554.)
In Febuary 2014, the second anniversary of Abellio's arrival in the east of England, Which? published the results of its latest annual survey of rail travel. Abellio Greater Anglia had moved from second-worst in 2013 to joint worst in the country in 2014. For
cleanliness it was out on its own – the dirtiest in the network.
By September 2014, as Keith Brown was putting the finishing touches to the franchise offer in Scotland, the litany of complaints covered not only exorbitant ticket prices and unclean carriages but poor punctuality and reliability. A Suffolk MP told the company that his constituents were exasperated by ‘constant problems with the service’ and the UK transport minister at the time said he was not surprised by the negative findings about Abellio’s performance.
One commuter on the Lowestoft-Norfolk line, Nick Hannant, got so fed up that he kept a diary of his travel experiences with Abellio. It recorded that, on an average of three of the five days a week he used the service, there were delays or cancellations. They had made him late for work, late for important meetings and late home in the evening. Mr Hannant spent hundreds of pounds on buses and taxis after being let down by Abellio.
‘The service is sub-standard, continually late and quite frankly an embarrassment’, he said. ‘One day I waited at my local station 30 minutes for a train that had been cancelled. No-one informed me. I got a taxi at a cost of £20 so that I could get to a meeting. Coming back in the evening, they laid on a single carriage train at rush hour.
People were crammed eyeball to eyeball’.
All this must have been known to the SNP administration before it awarded the contract for Scotland. If it was not known, it should have been.
Although the franchise process was not exactly a model of transparency, it seems there was little to choose between the bids of the two front-runners, Abellio and National Express. What the latter had in its favour was the track record – literally in this case – of a universally respected industry figure, Mary Grant. Instead, having ruled out FirstGroup and faced with the prospect of awarding the contract to a British multinational headquartered in England, the Scottish Government decided it would rather do business with a company owned in continental Europe.
The present fiasco could have been predicted. It was predicted – in this magazine on 21 October 2014.
But by then it was too late.
In Kilmarnock it's Christmas every day
I am mystified by Gerry Hassan’s analysis (22 November) which seems to be based on the idea that there isn’t enough social justice here. Which part of this nebulous concept do we lack? Does Scotland prevent its citizens from trying or achieving? Does it prevent them from bettering themselves by their own efforts? And has it done so these last 50 years (or more)?
It seems to me that the answer to these questions is broadly 'No'; any person with enough drive and ability to better themselves has been able to do so; in my time I have had the pleasure of teaching some of them. If there are faults, they lie largely with those Scottish parents who are satisfied with a culture based on footba’, excess alcohol and television. Alternatives have always been available; it is not the fault of the Scottish (or any other) Government if such opportunities are not taken up, and no amount of social engineering is likely to make things seem better to those like Gerry Hassan, who appear to expect the Scottish Government to dispense social justice like toothpaste.
Evidently he does not like the Scottish people as they are, but wants to change them, like it or not. But people are not born equal and nothing can change that. So long as opportunity is open – and I believe it is – Scotland is basically fair, or at least fair enough. There is more than enough social justice dispensed here, especially if, as it sometimes seems, the least deserving are its main recipients.
Gerry Hassan’s article is myopic and unrealistic. There are large areas of Scottish life which he does not even mention, let alone discuss. He assumes the rightness of secular collectivism. It has never worked anywhere else. It does not make people happy. It does not prosper them. Redistribution of wealth will impoverish the nation unless it is balanced by personal responsibility. Vision, inventiveness, gifted management, production and extremely hard work are the longer-term means of progress.
There are swathes of the Scottish population whose existence the SNP government does not acknowledge. The contribution of men to history and modern society. Obvious things like great bridges built, engines manufactured, technological advancement and medical discoveries to name but a few. Lower middle class, skilled working class, the educated, professionals, decent living 'Quiet of the Land’ are not acknowledged for the stability they contribute to national life. Christians and their views and values are largely ignored in public life and there is a low national morale as a consequence. The rhetoric of the political left has failed every society (see Venezuela).
Scotland can most certainly be an independent nation if the people so choose. But what is Scotland for? A narrow blinkered socialist revolution such as Gerry Hassan advocates will make Scotland a poorer, much worse place by far than it is even at present under the SNP. Positive economic regeneration is needed to create the wealth required to attend to the poorest and weakest. Gerry Hassan says nothing about this necessity.