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?
magazine survey.

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.

Bernie Cohen

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.

Robert Anderson

Cafe contributions to rachel@scottishreview.net

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Kenneth Roy’s new book, 'The Broken Journey: a life of Scotland 1976-99', charts in vivid and compelling detail the events and personalities of the last quarter of the 20th century in Scotland.

Allan Massie writes in The Scotsman:

Kenneth Roy has been surveying the public life of Scotland with a keen and sceptical eye for more than 40 years...The Broken Journey is a rich and fascinating survey of a country and a time which Roy views with rich and affectionate irony. Those too young to remember the time will learn a lot about the country they have inherited.

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Out here on the edge of the western world, we're more or less equidistant from Glasgow and Vladivostock, give or take a hundred miles each way. So it was not much more than a matter of passing interest to most people on Vancouver Island – if they noticed it at all – when Vladimir Putin sent a naval task force through the English Channel recently.

Putin's aircraft carrier did look a bit decrepit on the CBC News as it passed through the Strait of Dover under its Joe Bfstplk cloud of smoke, while the UK newspapers gleefully pointed out that it was in such dodgy shape that it had to have a tow-tug escort in case it broke down. But Putin hardly seems like a man who would risk the embarrassment of having a ship-of-the-line break down in the Channel, or even the Mediterranean, which is where his task force was heading.

It got some of us to wondering what Putin was really up to. Despite his 'star' quality, and undoubted popularity among a sizeable proportion of Russia's population, Putin is not much liked by western governments. Russia's actions in Syria are seen as particularly brutal, and the cast put on any of his government's actions by the western media is almost never favourable – whether in the Ukraine, or towards the former USSR's Baltic states.

We could start by looking at a map; say a big map of Europe. One printed on paper, as opposed to a depiction on a computer screen. If the map is from the 1980s like our Rand McNally World Atlas, you'll first of all notice some changes. East Germany doesn't exist any more. Neither does Czechoslovakia or Yugoslavia. Today's maps show Albania in much more detail than the atlas of the mid-1980s.

But, more important than all the partly-forgotten political and social upheavals that have taken place since our Rand McNally was published, you'll see something else; something we really don't look at very often in these days of Google Maps and the GPS systems we've got in our cars. (Not mine, thankfully.) What you'll see when you look at the old Rand McNally are the relationships of one country to another, and the relative size of each of our world's socio-political groups. You'll quickly notice how far apart, or how close, cities and countries are to one another, and how, and where, their borders intertwine.

You might also see quite quickly from this examination, if you have even a modicum of history, how obvious and essential it is that the countries of Europe retain strong trading, social and even cultural relationships to one another. After all, there is the mass of Africa to the south, the enormity of the USSR (now Russia), to the north, and what the Victorians called 'the hordes' to the east.

You will more easily see how Ukraine is far, far closer to Moscow than it is to Paris or London. Kiev, for example, is only 470 miles from Moscow. It's closer than Inverness is to Brighton; less than half the distance of Washington DC from New Orleans. Which might give you a hint about why the Russian government was upset at the efforts that were made to have Ukraine join the European Union. Or why Putin would react strongly to the suggestion that Petro Poroshenko's government – or that of his predecessor Viktor Yanukovich – should join NATO.

Anyone with an older map would quickly realise that those two moves would have been seen by the Kremlin as threats to Russia's security. They'd be seen as provocative to anyone with a sense of history; to anyone who has seen how the Quadriga atop the Brandenburg Gate faces with all its warlike passion towards the east, and not the west. A glance at the map would also help us understand how Putin might feel about the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as a part of NATO. Vilnius is 491 miles from Moscow. It's more than a thousand miles from London. In the autumn of 1962 when the idea of Russian bombers and missiles being deployed in Cuba put the US administration into mental orbit, Havana was – as it remains today – 1,140 miles away from John F Kennedy's Oval Office in the White House.

We lose a lot when we use Google Earth and our GPS systems to find out how to get from A to B. But more than anything else we lose perspective: we lose sight of the bigger picture, and how that picture might look to someone who sits, as Basil Liddell Hart termed it, 'On the Other Side of the Hill'. Because more often than not we're looking at a much more localised picture than we'd get from an atlas. Hands up everyone who looked at a world atlas in the last year. My hand wouldn't have been in the air; not before today, that is.

One result of this is that we're too quick to accept political (and media) rhetoric about these places and these regimes when we're told they threaten us in some way. We need analysis that gives us an idea of what they might feel about the things we're doing. We rarely get that.