First Group Pipped to the £2.5bn Post

Beset transport multinational FirstGroup has lost out to Dutch upstart Abellio as operator of the £2.5bn ScotRail franchise. Not even a series of witty Commonwealth themed station signs could save FirstGroup from a slow, languorous demise on Scottish rails.

This year has not been kind to FirstGroup, having lost out on the colossal £9bn Thameslink project in the south of England. The group will presumably now turn their attention to the much sought after East Coast Main Line. However, if they fail to win the East Coast Main Line, the group’s future looks remarkably uncertain.

The Netherland’s Abellio, which is expected to be announced as the preferred operator in the next few days, already operates a trio of English rail projects. The Dutch transport group was shortlisted alongside FirstGroup, National Express, Arriva and MRT.


What does it mean for Scotland’s trains?

Scottish Ministers set five policy objectives for the new contractor: value for money, quality of service, environmental performance and passenger satisfaction. Out of the five shortlisted groups, Abellio was deemed the best choice to fulfill these.

At home in the Netherlands, Abellio operates a raft of services with 93% running on time. Additionally, they offer generous compensation for passengers who have trains delayed or cancelled. Passengers who are delayed half an hour are entitled to half their fare back; those who are delayed an hour are entitled to their full fare back.

Abellio’s pitch came with a series of promises. Advance fares between any two Scottish cities are to start as low as £5, jobseekers are to receive discounted fares and the number of overall carriages is set to increase 23%.

Finally, the final contract is to have a break clause halfway through the 10-year deal. If Abellio does not live up to the five objectives, the government can cancel the policy without penalty.

That certainly ticks the value for money box.

Abellio also promise to introduce 100 apprenticeships, to pay a living to all staff and have ruled out compulsory redundancies for the duration of the contract. That, it is hoped, will go some way to improving the service onboard ScotRail trains.


What has the response been?

The reaction to the announcement has been mixed. After many years of endemically late trains, poor communication and regular price hikes, commuters are understandably reserved.

Rail union RMT reacted negatively to the decision, describing it as a “disgraceful and shameful betrayal of the Scottish people.”

“Scotland could have taken control of its own railways,” said RMT general secretary Mick Cash. “Instead they have opted to go Dutch, meaning that profits will be sucked out of the system to underpin investment and fares in Holland.”RMT argue for the renationalisation of the railways.”

RMT argue for the renationalisation of the railways. And while Abellio is state-owned, it is the Dutch state that owns it.