There may be some merit in a fully integrated rail network for Scotland - Alastair Dalton
I had low expectations of any revelations from Michael Matheson when I interviewed the Transport Secretary as part of an SNP conference fringe event on Monday – but one came within the first few minutes.
Mr Matheson admitted that, despite his extensive rail travel across the world, including on many overnight trains, he had never taken the Caledonian Sleeper.
That will have come as a surprise to many watching the event organised by the Railway Industry Association and the High Speed Rail Group.
It also seems like a major omission, since the minister is responsible for the Sleeper franchise, but perhaps he is just being canny – and biding his time until he is confident the notoriously fault-prone new fleet’s extended problems have been finally ironed out.
I recall seeing Mr Matheson at the ill-fated launch of the inaugural service from Glasgow Central in April last year, and he even pops up in a video of the event on the Transport Scotland YouTube channel extolling its virtues.
But unlike the rest of us, he didn’t board the train – and saved himself a potentially sleepless night (I couldn’t get the air con cool enough, the loose window seals kept me awake and the brand-new shower didn’t work).
Having said that, the then Scottish Secretary and fellow passenger David Mundell told me on arrival in Euston he had slept fine.
I’ve since had a better experience, although I’m hoping it’ll be third time lucky on my next trip for getting a shower.
Kathryn Darbandi, who moves from the travel agency world to take over as Caledonian Sleeper managing director next month, will no doubt be keen to welcome Mr Matheson aboard – once she’s personally checked that any remaining gremlins have definitely been banished from the operation.
He’d be wise to take up an offer, because the current Sleeper contract, run by Serco, may be one of the last train operating franchises to be abolished when it ends in 2030.
Much as Transport Scotland might want to see the new-look Sleeper and its emblematic “Scotland on wheels” image back in the public sector after a quarter of a century, it will be at the back of the queue.
With the United Kingdom government pledging to abolish the franchising system, under which Scottish ministers let contracts to run the country’s two train firms, the focus will be what happens to the other, far larger one, ScotRail.
Dutch state railways offshoot Abellio has decided to hand back the keys three years early in March 2022, which leaves just 15 months to sort out what happens next.
Mr Matheson told me he hopes to see not just a publicly controlled ScotRail, but the operation being combined with track owner Network Rail to create a “truly integrated railway” for the first time since British Rail, with the passenger and infrastructure sides “completely interdependent on one another”.
That would require full power over Network Rail being transferred to the Scottish Government.
But since so much of it, including spending, is already in the hands of Scottish ministers, there would seem to be merit in that.
Most of the Scottish network is also a discrete system.
Then at least there would be an end to the SNP trying to blame Westminster for the next ills to befall the country’s railway.