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Sturgeon under fire as Scotland spends three times more on rail services than England

·3-min read
Nicola Sturgeon
Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of wasting taxpayers’ money after figures showed that Scotland is spending three times as much as England on keeping railway services running during Covid.

Holyrood has paid almost £60 for every passenger journey since the pandemic struck compared with £22 south of the border, according to analysis by The Telegraph.

In Scotland, this equates to £1.86 for every kilometre each passenger has travelled, compared with 69p in England.

Rail operators on both sides of the border were effectively nationalised to prevent them going bust during the first lockdown, costing billions of pounds of public money. Politicians are now struggling to work out how to handle the ongoing financial burden of running services, amid fears that mass commuting will never return after Covid.

Ms Sturgeon’s administration decided on Monday to keep its two operators on emergency rail contracts until the end of the year. By contrast, in Westminster operators have been transferred onto less lucrative terms to try to limit the burden on taxpayers.

MSP Graham Simpson, the Scottish Conservatives’ shadow transport minister, said: “Scottish taxpayers are shelling out three times more for an SNP rail service that hasn’t operated on a Sunday in seven months and plans to slash hundreds of services.

“Rail users aren’t seeing value for money and the SNP-Green government needs to ensure that under nationalisation the rail services work for the passenger, not the operator.”

The decision came as the SNP fights a bitter industrial dispute with the RMT guards union. Passengers have suffered weekend rail disruption for several months as a result.

In Westminster, the Department for Transport is under orders from the Treasury to cut a rail subsidy that has ballooned to more than £10bn across England. The burden on the public purse is to be reduced through an increase in demand as more commuters return to work, coupled with budget cuts.

Bosses in England are in talks with union leaders to axe thousands of jobs and reduce service levels in order to balance the books.

The Scottish approach means operators continue to be funded predominantly through a fixed fee, as opposed to one earning money based on their performance. Industry sources said that Scottish ministers had resisted a cut to services to avoid worsening their dispute with the RMT.

However, insiders added, this meant that the services’ operator Abellio is racking up big losses. Abellio will be replaced by a state-run company in sprint.

According to the latest figures released by Transport Scotland, taxpayers are paying about £850m a year to keep rail services running north of the border.

Though this is considerably less than the £8.3bn spent by Westminster , Scotland only had 14.5m passenger journeys in the year to March 2021, according to figures released by the Office of Rail and Road (ORR) – compared with 373.5m in England.

Scottish trains racked up about 450m rail passenger kilometres according to another metric used by the ORR, compared with more than 12bn in England.

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “The economics of the Scottish network are quite different from those of England, which includes higher revenue per journey from longer distance journeys into London and the intercity routes generally.

“ScotRail provides services across many rural and remote areas of Scotland. A better comparison would be with similar parts of the English network, for example, Northern Trains, rather than an England-wide average.”

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