Graeme Dey: We should be very clear rail is devolved - it is for us to decide
Prior to entering government, Graeme Dey admits he didn’t take the train as much as he should or could have done. But more recently he’s become a bit of a rail evangelist, even turning down the offer of a ministerial car for a trip to Aberdeen in a few weeks’ time. Instead, he’ll get the train and walk to meetings. “It’ll be great, a lovely day out,” he enthuses. “You know, people still have this default position of a car is the answer. Well, it’s not the answer. It’s not good for the environment. And if you can combine active travel with taking the train, then great!”
His challenge, though, is to encourage more of the travelling public to follow suit. Not only must he get rail usage back to pre-pandemic levels (currently it is hovering at about 50 per cent of that), Dey must also encourage even the most ardent car fans to get on board. Mass modal shift is imperative if Scotland is to match its climate ambitions, including the target to reduce the distance travelled by cars by a fifth by 2030.
So how do you make rail a more attractive option? The solutions seem obvious: reduce the cost of fares, ensure timetables and routes meet people’s needs, and integrate rail into the wider transport system. Critics say the Scottish Government is not going far or fast enough on any of these things and indeed has been criticised for the proposed ScotRail timetable which will see some services reduced. But Dey says the reality is that so many services are being underused and it is not sustainable to continue subsiding rail to the same level seen during the pandemic.
Our travel offering in Scotland is too fragmented and what we need to do in a variety ways is to try and bring that more together
“We face some challenges, and you’ll be aware of the criticism that we’ve only restored net 100 services back into the mix at this stage – but that’s the starting point. We can’t afford to run empty trains in the current circumstance. But we also need to look at what the post-pandemic travel pattern is going to be.”
He also insists making multi-modal travel easier – including via integrated ticketing – is “one of the many workstreams that are going on in government”. The government was subject to a fair amount of criticism after COP26 delegates were provided with a single travel card giving them access to a range of transport options, for free, to get to and from the conference. Questions were raised about why there was not yet an Oyster-style card available in Scotland.
“Our travel offering in Scotland is too fragmented,” Dey admits, “and what we need to do in a variety ways is to try and bring that more together, not just in terms of an integrated card, but also a kind of dovetailing.
“I’ll give you an example. If you go to Ardrossan ferry port, the railway is literally a few yards away. What could be better? The ferry staff tell me that if the train’s late, they wait, they just delay the ferry to get passengers off [the train]. They don’t know how many are coming off the train, but they know they’re coming to that station to get on the ferry. But the reverse doesn’t work. Government and Transport Scotland are culpable here because we have these rules about trains keeping to time and everything. But it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of all of us to come up with a system that actually puts those two things together.”
ScotRail is set to come back into public ownership within the next few months, following the decision to strip Abellio of the franchise early, which could help bring some of these pieces together.
Dey explains the first stage for taking public control of the railways is “on track” for March, but what will follow that will be an “evolution” depending on how quickly rail services recover from the pandemic and changes being made at UK level on how rail contracts are awarded.
The UK government announced the end of the franchising system in 2020 but, knowing its replacement would not be ready before the end of the current ScotRail franchise, the Scottish Government will become ScotRail’s operator of last resort. Dey’s boss, Michael Matheson, told parliament earlier this year “it would not be appropriate to award a franchise agreement to any party at this time”.
The UK government has since published its white paper proposing the creation of Great British Railways (GBR). This new public body will replace Network Rail, but it will also control contracts.
Does this mean the Scottish Government is any closer to knowing how long it will be ScotRail’s operator of last resort? “The honest answer is no,” Dey says. “I mean, my focus now is decarbonisation, the franchise coming back in house, and how we build back from the pandemic. Right now those are my three main concentrations as far as rail is concerned. The key thing for the public and for the staff is to get this built back in a sustainable way.”
Despite the white paper, though, Dey also says there has been little discussion with the UK government on the GBR plan. “My officials have been trying since this announcement to elicit detail about what they’re intending to do, not with a great deal of success.
“We should be very clear rail is devolved; it is for us to decide what Scotland’s railway will do. That said, I’m really keen to work in partnership with the UK Government, if we can establish a proper partnership.”
Likewise, he’s also critical of the lack of communication from his UK counterparts on high speed rail. Speaking just hours after the announcement that the east leg of HS2 between the Midlands and Leeds is to be scrapped, Dey says: “I only know what I’m reading in the press at the moment about bits being cancelled… Like many other people, I’m watching the whole HS2 issue unfolding. You know, we went through a period a few months ago where a by-election result in England appeared to be largely influenced by the debate around HS2 and now a leg of it is going to be cancelled, so I’ll wait to see what happens with that.”
Asked about his relationship with Network Rail, Dey gives an exasperated smile before answering. “The relationship with Network Rail in Scotland is very good on a practical level… Perhaps what is more frustrating, not even perhaps, what is more frustrating for me is the model that we work to in the UK and the fact that we pay hundreds of millions of pounds every year to access the track.
“Now, the track clearly has to be maintained. But it’s a very large proportion of the rail budget and it’s a very fixed proportion of the rail budget. I don’t think I’m giving anything away, because I’ve mentioned it in the chamber, but I am deeply frustrated at the nature of that structure. I think the office of the rail regulator, I think the role they have in all this needs to be refreshed. Every other part of the rail sector has had to respond to the challenges of the pandemic, even from a budgetary point of view. And yet we continue to spend large, very large, sums of money on our formal relationship with Network Rail and that’s the UK model.
“I’m not sure that works entirely well. I understand entirely why it was done in the first place, for perfectly laudable reasons, but I think at a strategic level that needs to be looked at again, to make sure that the public purse is getting the best value for money.”
Dey believes the entire structure should be devolved to Scotland, a suggestion the UK government continues to oppose. Under the GBR proposals, the new body will simply take over Network Rail’s function in terms of managing rail infrastructure in Scotland. These functions are already managed from Scotland, under the head of ScotRail, but its work is not controlled by the Scottish Government nor is it accountable to the Scottish Parliament.
More broadly, Dey agrees there needs to be more room for discussion between the two governments about cross-border rail – especially when it comes to the decarbonisation of freight. “Probably the biggest area I see for us to move into in the net zero agenda is rail freight. I think it’s got an enormous amount of potential. But we have to recognise, I think it’s 70 per cent of freight is either going to or coming from the rest of the UK. So we need to ensure that that entire journey is decarbonised… I think that is just such a growth area for us, alongside getting more people out of cars and onto the trains.”
I’m afraid in the economic climate that we’re in, and with competing low carbon transport alternatives, it won’t be possible to meet everyone’s aspirations. That’s just the reality
Transport Scotland’s action plan on decarbonisation aims to have the majority of routes electrified by 2035, with the exception of some in the far north and south west which are instead expected to make use of new hydrogen and battery technology.
Dey says: “We are on track, no pun intended. We’ve got that phase one, where we do East Kilbride, we’re doing the Borders, Fife. As we speak, later tonight, the guys and girls will be on the mainline to Aberdeen, doing the ground investigation work for decarbonising that stretch. So it’s very much an ongoing process.”
He is also excited about the reopening of old lines – including Levenmouth, where construction work is set to begin next year to put trains back on tracks more than 50 years after the last passenger service – but he’s keen to temper expectations about other new lines.
“I’m afraid in the economic climate that we’re in, and with competing low carbon transport alternatives, it won’t be possible to meet everyone’s aspirations. That’s just the reality. I’m afraid that in the post-Covid, post-Brexit economic situation, nice-to-have type projects really aren’t at the forefront of our thinking. That’s not to say that they eventually won’t materialise. But in reality, we’re having to focus on those projects that make the most economic and environmental sense, sitting alongside decarbonisation, which is the priority at the moment.
“But Levenmouth is an incredibly exciting project and you see what happened with the Borders railway. There’s a lot of asks in that space at the moment. We’ll see what we can do in the short term, medium term, and then probably the longer term.”
But in the meantime, Dey is not only surrounded by trains in the day job – he’s also regularly reminded of the public appetite for better rail when leafletting in his constituency, where “a couple of folk have got model trains in their gardens. They are just amazing.”
It takes him back to his own trainset as a kid. “It was a Hornby and my dad put it on a big chipboard that was just a big circle, but it was actually battery powered, properly, you know, it wasn’t just a couple of batteries in the train that went round. It had a station and everything. I wish I had been that kid that looked after everything, stuck it neatly in a box so I could pull it out for my kids and my grandkids, but no, I broke it.”