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Rail renationalisation? Anything would be better than hell on wheels we have now.

IT doesn’t take a genius to understand why public support is growing for nationalising ScotRail. Just gag as you are charged £23 for a day return to Edinburgh on a dirty train in which you will very likely have to stand, even though you aren’t a Labour leader. The trains are often late and toilets stink even when they work.

And from January, commuters will be paying nearly £4,000 a year for this dubious privilege. Abellio, the company that operates the ScotRail franchise, is driving people into their cars. It’s cheaper for one person to drive between Scotland’s major cities in a Rolls Royce Phantom than to travel by train.

Yet demand for rail is greater than ever and people really like trains. I certainly do; or did before I started to question why it is such a dismal service.

People feel good about rail because they believe, rightly, that it is better for the environment. But services just get worse and rail fares are the highest in Europe and rising. It really is hell on wheels.

We have a sub-19th century service when rail should be at the leading edge of 21st Century transport policy.

With technological developments such as driverless trains and smart ticketing, it is possible to envisage a future in which few people would dream of undertaking the strain and expense of driving private cars between cities.

I’m no technology expert but even I can see how the internet of things will merge public transport services and timetables in a way that could transform public transport for everyone with a smart phone.

Consultants like Deloitte’s are already talking about urban transportation as a digitally integrated network in which the passenger pays electronically for managed journeys across different modes of transport.

Shared vehicles, driverless taxis and buses would be on hand at stations to whisk people arriving on ultra-fast trains to their local destinations.

This is not science fiction, but quite achievable within the next decade or so, using big data and mobile telephony. And smart public transport would quite obviously require public oversight and central management, if not outright public control.

It will have to be largely decentralised and operated across urban spaces, which is why nationalisation of rail in Scotland could make sense. Some five million people is probably the optimum population for implementing future transport policy. But renationalisation would not be without its problems.

Rail is fragmented. Abellio (owned by the Dutch state-owned rail operator) runs the ScotRail services but Network Rail (a UK quango) owns stations and tracks and privately owned Roscos owns and leases the rolling stock.

It’s a daft series of botched compromises that only serves to confirm that privatisation 20 years ago was a mistake.

It led to fragmentation and profiteering by companies that harvested public subsidies while running an indifferent service.

When you privatise a public monopoly you simply get a private monopoly because there is no meaningful competition on a service like the railways. It really is time to clear the lot and start again.

But is government up to the task? Noting the shift in public opinion, Nicola Sturgeon is keen on a public-sector challenge to Abellio in 2025 (or 2020 if the contract is terminated early).

But has the Scottish Government the powers or the will to nationalise track and rolling stock?

Driverless trains and largely unmanned stations may not appeal to the unions agitating for public ownership.

And will the Government relish being in the line of fire every time a train breaks down? If it avoids direct control by setting up an arms-length quango to run rail, will that be any better than the present lot?

After all, the hated Abellio is already state-owned; just not by our state.

Prompted by public outrage at the state of rail, the Transport Secretary, Humza Yousaf, has summoned rail unions, public-sector bodies and opposition parties to talks on how to build a public-sector bid for the rail franchise.

This is an initiative that even opponents of renationalisation should get behind. After all, the new technology is mostly being generated by private companies.

But big questions require big answers. It seems difficult to imagine the integrated public transport ecosystem being built, owned and operated by the private sector. It has had its chance and failed.

Rickety rides in overpriced and overcrowded trains are the most obvious testimony to the failure of privatisation. Anything is better than this.

About @iainmacwhirter

I'm a columnist for the Herald. Author of "Road to Referendum" and "Disunited Kingdom". Was a BBC TV and radio presenter for 25 years - "Westminster Live" and "Holyrood Live" mainly. Spent time as columnist for The Observer, Guardian, New Statesman. Former Rector of Edinburgh University. Live in Edinburgh and spend a lot of time in the French Pyrenees. Will that do?


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