SCOTTISH Government plans to pave the way for a public sector bid for ScotRail have been welcomed by Scottish Labour and a group that represents rail passengers.

Rural affairs spokesperson for Scottish Labour, Rhoda Grant, said her party would welcome such a move when the current contract with Abellio ends in 2025, but criticised the SNP Government for it being “a decade too late for Scotland’s rail passengers”.

Railfuture Scotland — a voluntary group that represents rail transport users — said that while they do not have a preference when it comes to private or public ownership, they “cautiously welcome this initiative”.

Transport Secretary Humza Yousaf at the weekend told the Sunday Herald that the Scottish Government was “committed to creating a level playing field for rail franchise in the future”. He added that the Government has narrowed down the options that could take a public sector bid forward when Abellio’s ScotRail contract expires and that he is working with Transport Scotland to gather more evidence, which will allow him to further narrow down the options.

The consideration of “progressive alternatives” that broke from “decades of privatisation dogma” was backed by transport union TSSA.

ScotRail has come in for much criticism in recent times with reports earlier this year that passenger satisfaction had fallen — despite remaining higher than other parts of the UK — due to a number of problems regarding delays and cancellations. Yousaf then apologised to customers for the disruption and ScotRail was fined £483,000 for missing required standards targets.

A passenger compensation scheme was subsequently implemented, which involved a “free week” for season ticket holders, though this led to a dispute as to how it was going to be funded.

It is believed a number of public bodies are in the running to take over from the Dutch firm, including CalMac Ferries – which appears to be the early front-runner – along with the Transport for Edinburgh group and Strathclyde Partnership for Transport.

The Government could explore options other than a public sector bid, with the creation of a government-owned company or a public-private partnership to take control of the ScotRail franchise also on the table.

Scottish Labour, while welcoming of the move, made it clear that any future move towards a public sector bid may already be too late.

“If the SNP is considering allowing public sector bids for ScotRail, then we would welcome this move,” said Grant.

“However, the reality is this risks being a decade too late for Scotland’s rail passengers — public satisfaction with ScotRail is now at a 14 year low.

“Before awarding the franchise to Abellio, the SNP government could have listened to Labour and the trade unions and waited for the new powers that were being delivered to the Scottish Parliament to bring our railways back into public hands.

“Now, after pressure from Labour and the trade unions, the SNP must follow our lead and pledge to deliver a People’s ScotRail.”

Railfuture Scotland, who campaigns for cheaper, more convenient rail travel and improved infrastructure, also welcomed Yousaf’s calls. They stressed, however, that their aim is to improve rail travel for customers, whether that involves moving closer to nationalisation or not.

“Railfuture Scotland is primarily concerned with bringing about the best possible deal and services for rail users,” a spokesperson said.

“We do not therefore have a particular preference as to whether that should be under private or public ownership. However we cautiously welcome this initiative.

“We might also note that the former British Rail was by no means ideal,” they added, “the public sector is just as capable of propounding dogma as is the private, and that the rail network has actually expanded since privatisation, as well as an increased frequency on some lines.

“Were CalMac to take over Scotrail, care must be taken to avoid the pitfalls of an over-large organisation as existed before, though we would expect as a result to see better co-ordination between trains and boats.”