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Abellio could bid for next ScotRail deal in 2022 despite losing franchise contract

Michael Matheson.
Michael Matheson.

Train operator Abellio could bid for the ScotRail franchise in 2022 – despite the Scottish Government calling a halt to its current contract three years early.

Transport Secretary Michael Matheson has confirmed if no changes are made to current franchising arrangements by the UK Government, the Dutch firm could make a fresh bid to run the services again.

Mr Matheson told MSPs on Wednesday the Scottish Government was calling time on Abellio and the current franchise arrangements – which had been due to run until 2025 – would instead come to an end in March 2022.

ScotRail: Scottish Government strips Abellio of rail contract

Abellio has faced continued criticism for its running of the rail services, with complaints about delays and cancellations, as well as overcrowding on some services and rising ticket prices.

The transport secretary confirmed to Holyrood that following “extensive and rigorous analysis” by ministers, the decision was taken not to let the contract run for its full 10 years.

Less than 24 hours later, he revealed without changes being made to the current system, Abellio could bid for the new franchise.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme, Mr Matheson said: “If the UK Government do not change the rules around franchising for rail, we could be in a position where we have no option other than another rail franchise, a very complex, costly process that in my view does not serve the rail industry or the travelling public.”

Asked directly if Abellio could bid for that, he responded: “Technically they would be able to bid like any other company would be able to bid.”

The transport secretary said he would like the franchising model for rail services to be brought to an end.

“I would prefer us not to be in a position where we have to have rail franchising, full stop,” he said.

“That would allow us to have public-sector control over our railway network here in Scotland and bring together the infrastructure elements and the passenger rolling stock elements much more closely than we have at the present moment.”

Mr Matheson said a public-sector operator could be ready to step in and take over the running of Scotland’s railways within two years – although he added this was “wholly dependent” on Westminster granting Holyrood new powers.

He added under the current franchise system ministers are required to have an “operator of last resort” in place.

The transport secretary said: “That is an operation that can take over the running of our railways should a franchisee walk away the next day.

“So we already have those arrangements in place, with significant expertise in being able to run a rail service.”

Dominic Booth, managing director of Abellio UK, said the rail operator was “hugely disappointed” by the Scottish Government’s decision, branding it “the wrong choice for Scotland’s railway and its customers”.

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