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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, March 28, 2024


Portfolio Question Time


The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. The first item of business this afternoon is portfolio question time. The portfolio on this occasion is transport. I remind members that questions 5 and 7 have been grouped together, so I will take any supplementary questions on them after both have been answered.

Anybody who wishes to ask a supplementary question should press their request-to-speak button after the relevant question. There is quite a bit of interest in asking questions on this portfolio, so I make the usual plea for brevity in questions and responses, as far as possible.

Rail Travel (Safety)

1. Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I remind members of my convenership of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group.

To ask the Scottish Government what it is doing to ensure that rail travel is safe. (S6O-03276)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

Passenger and staff safety is paramount and is enforced by the British Transport Police, which works in partnership with ScotRail, Network Rail and passenger stakeholders to ensure that all passengers have safe and comfortable journeys. An example of that is British Transport Police’s partnership with ScotRail’s travel safe team, which has led to a reduction in antisocial behaviour on Scotland’s rail network. ScotRail advises that its travel safe team has grown from eight to 24 travel safe officers, following the success of the team.

ScotRail and the British Transport Police have put a range of measures in place, on trains and in stations, with the aim of providing confidence among the travelling public and rail staff that the railway is safe and secure for all.

Richard Leonard

In 2016, ScotRail and the RMT reached an agreement that, on routes such as Barrhead and East Kilbride, services would be guaranteed a conductor on every new electrified train. It was guaranteed that the conductor would retain their full safety competency, including rules, track safety, evacuation and dispatch, and that trains operating those services would not run without a competent conductor on board.

Now, ScotRail, in public ownership, with the Government as the sole shareholder, is proposing to rip that agreement up, denying equal access to those services for passengers with disabilities and jeopardising safety for all. These are not operational matters—they are equality matters; they are safety matters. Will the cabinet secretary intervene?

Fiona Hyslop

The member may not be aware, but there have been developments in the past 24 hours on that issue. It is not for me to express what those developments are—that will be for the employer and the trade union. The Scottish Government continues to specify a requirement that all ScotRail services should have a second staff member on board to assist passengers, and I will continue to underline that.

As regards the reference to 2016, that may be subject to the on-going discussions, which I hope will continue to take place.

There are a number of supplementary questions. I want to get them all in, but they will need to be brief, as will the responses.

Collette Stevenson (East Kilbride) (SNP)

Safety of the railway remains a reserved matter, but the Government has fully funded Network Rail Scotland in line with the Office of Rail and Road’s recommendations. Does the cabinet secretary therefore share my view that Labour should not be undermining our rail sector, and the societal and environmental benefits that it offers, by inferring that it is unsafe?

Fiona Hyslop

Rail safety is reserved to the UK Government and the ORR. We are fully funding the ORR’s recommendations, with an increase of £450 million in cash terms. We are leading the way on a joined-up railway. That is evidenced by the fact that the United Kingdom Department for Transport has headhunted Scotland’s Railway’s managing director to help it to catch up.

It is important that we have full devolution of rail powers to Scotland to enable us to deliver a railway that truly benefits Scotland. Anyone with a genuine interest in that should get behind those calls, whatever the result of the next UK general election.

Surely, if there are developments on the issue, the cabinet secretary should tell us what they are. After all, she is the Cabinet Secretary for Transport. Will those developments please the RMT?

Fiona Hyslop

It is with respect to the RMT that I am not relaying what it told me this morning. I had a meeting with the rail unions, and I understand that there may be movement on the issue.

Currently, there is, as there has been for a considerable time, the successful operation on the electric railways of ScotRail drivers supported by ticket examiners. That has been happening for some time on many rail routes. The issue between the employer and the trade union is for them to determine, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment, bearing in mind the sensitivities and that I have just met the union and heard news this morning. That is for the RMT to disclose, and it is with respect to it that I am not making any further comment.

Alex Rowley can ask a brief question.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that the Fife circle, for example, tends to get trains that others have passed on to it. Is there a replacement train programme in place for areas such as Fife with high-speed trains?

Fiona Hyslop

The replacement of the rail fleet is a priority for the Scottish Government. It is clear that the more we electrify, the more trains will be released that can support the current Fife system. However, I am also conscious of the need to develop the decarbonised Fife route.

In the meantime, maintenance is really important. The recruitment of an additional 20 to 40 engineers has been helping the network generally, and Fife in particular. Alex Rowley is probably more interested in the longer term. I will keep him apprised of that.

ScotRail (Alcohol Ban)

2. Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it can provide an update on when it will make a decision on the continued ban on the consumption of alcohol at all times on trains, in light of ScotRail’s confirmation in evidence to the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee that the consultation findings have been passed to Transport Scotland. (S6O-03277)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

The Scottish Government is aware that a wide range of views is held by passengers, ScotRail staff and other interested parties on the alcohol ban on ScotRail trains. ScotRail routinely asks passengers questions about a variety of topics related to the customer experience. However, those are not formal consultations; rather, they are short-duration online surveys.

The findings from ScotRail’s passenger survey on the alcohol ban are being considered as part of much wider and more robust work that is being undertaken to reduce unacceptable antisocial behaviours on our public transport. The Parliament will be informed in the most appropriate way once a decision on the future of the alcohol ban on ScotRail trains has been taken.

Douglas Lumsden

There is defer, dither and delay from the devolved Government. The temporary ban came into force in November 2020. We were told to wait for Jenny Gilruth’s national conversation on rail, but that was binned. We then had ScotRail’s survey of passengers, which was completed. The issue is dragging on for far too long. Can the Scottish Government please make a decision one way or the other?

Fiona Hyslop

We are making a decision by not changing that currently. However, there are genuinely strong and differing views on the issue each way, including in the chamber. It is right that we consider those views, and not least the safety and the perceived safety of women and girls.

A lot of the issues relating to alcohol are not about consumption on the trains; they are about the condition of people coming on to trains prior to their entry to the station. I say quite openly that, if we are to change the alcohol situation on trains, we would have to consider whether it would be the same as it previously was or whether we would change that. That is about as open as I can be.

I know that Douglas Lumsden is impatient, and I suspect that he wants his drink on the train back to Aberdeen, but I genuinely want the situation to be dealt with in a very open way. There are big differences in opinion and strongly held views on whether we should change the situation. That is exactly what I am wrestling with.

Karen Adam has a brief supplementary question. I hope that there will be a brief response.

Karen Adam (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Surely the priority must be users of trains feeling safe, particularly women and girls, who feel particularly unsafe in atmospheres in which there is antisocial behaviour that is accompanied by alcohol consumption. Has the ban on alcohol led to a decreased number of incidents of antisocial behaviour on ScotRail services?

The cabinet secretary should be as brief as possible.

Fiona Hyslop

That is an example of what I was saying. There are different views, including in parties and in the chamber. The pattern of antisocial behaviour has made identifying quantifiable evidence challenging. That is what we are wrestling with in identifying a robust evidence base. The safety of women is paramount. However, I also know that the unions have different views and would like the ban to be lifted. The decision is not an easy one, but we want to proceed in the most robust and open way possible.

Public Transport (National Concessionary Scheme)

3. Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

To ask the Scottish Government how many citizens, including residents of the Cunninghame South constituency, have accessed free public transport through the national concessionary scheme in the last year. (S6O-03278)

The Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity (Jim Fairlie)

As of 29 February 2024, there were 2,327,913 national concessionary travel scheme card holders in Scotland, who made 177,291,227 journeys during the period from 1 March 2023 to 29 February 2024. The data is not broken down into constituency areas, as cards are issued by local authorities. However, I am pleased to confirm that there are currently 69,057 card holders in the North Ayrshire Council area, who made a total of 4,764,887 journeys during that period.

Ruth Maguire

In the “Young Persons’ Free Bus Travel Scheme—Year 1 Evaluation: Professional Stakeholder Feedback” report, one local authority commented:

“The impact has been really positive with families getting out and about together, parents not having to worry about paying out for bus fares, being able to take part in more events with not having to worry about how to get there.”

Does the minister agree that that is just one of the many advantages of the scheme to young people, their families and our wider communities, in particular in the current cost of living crisis?

Jim Fairlie

Yes, absolutely. In addition, it has been estimated that families can save £3,000 for each child who makes full use of the free bus travel. The one-year evaluation of the scheme found that those savings have allowed young people and their families to spend that money on essential household costs and leisure activities, and that, for some children, the scheme has removed a barrier to joining classmates on school trips. It also makes it easier for grandparents and grandchildren to travel together, facilitating intergenerational outings.

We can add to that just being able to jump on a bus to go to visit family, whether it is to see your gran and grandad, your cousins or your favourite auntie and uncle. I have also been told about a young constituent of mine who has taken a job in Edinburgh purely because of the bus pass, and the scheme is delivering a whole host of other benefits.

Bus Services (Dumfries and Galloway)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it can take to support the reversal of the reported reduction of bus services in Dumfries and Galloway. (S6O-03279)

The Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity (Jim Fairlie)

It is always disappointing to hear of any potential reductions in bus services, in particular in more rural areas, where—as I am well aware—those services often offer the only public transport connections to healthcare and employment.

The Scottish Government has allocated almost £430 million in 2024-25 to support bus travel, and I am committed, with bus operators and local authorities, to continuing to look at ways of improving services in order to ensure that everyone has access to public transport. However, the majority of services in Scotland operate in a deregulated market and, as such, the withdrawal of services on commercial routes is a matter for private operators.

Nevertheless, any changes must be consistent with the processes that are enforced by the traffic commissioner for Scotland. Under the Transport Act 1985, local authorities have a duty to identify where there is a social need for particular bus services, which they can subsidise at their discretion.

Colin Smyth

Services across the region have been in decline for more than a decade, and so have local government budgets. An independent report that went to this month’s meeting of the South West of Scotland Transport Partnership warned that the situation is going to get worse. A summary of the report notes that

“The fragile position of the bus industry in Dumfries and Galloway is acute ... Resilience is at a historic low and the risk of further degradation is significant”

and that

“Any withdrawal of service ... capacity would have a major impact.”

Does the minister accept that the current model of bus service delivery in rural regions such as Dumfries and Galloway is absolutely broken and that we need a significant increase in the provision of publicly owned and publicly run services in the region before we lose even more services?

Jim Fairlie

I agree that we absolutely need those rural services, but we have already ploughed in more than £430 million, which has been allocated to bus services and concessionary fares in 2024-25. That is providing more than 2 million people in Scotland with access to free bus travel. With more than 3 million journeys a week, those schemes are helping people across Scotland to cut their costs for essential everyday leisure and travel, which is making sustainable travel a more attractive option. Nevertheless, I understand, and fully take on board, the point that we would want to do more.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

The bus network in Dumfries and Galloway is in a fragile position because of rising costs and weak demand compared with urban areas. Many people—particularly the elderly and disabled—rely on public transport. The Scottish Government provides SWestrans with only £259,000 in revenue funding, which is the same amount as it provided 12 years ago. Does the minister believe that that is acceptable, when we think about tackling climate change and addressing accessibility issues for the elderly and disabled? Is it just another example of his Government failing to address the needs of the south of Scotland?

Jim Fairlie

I apologise that I am not quite sure of the system that the member is talking about. I do not have the answer right now, but I am not sure that the fund that the member is talking about supports the national bus system. If I can get any further details on that, I will come back to him.

Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (Bus Services Franchise)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the decision by Strathclyde Partnership for Transport to take forward plans to franchise bus services. (S6O-03280)

The Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity (Jim Fairlie)

We have delivered all the powers within the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, which enables each local transport authority to determine the options that are available to it to improve bus provision in its area. Although some may opt for a franchising approach, others may choose to progress with a partnership or to run their own services. I welcome Strathclyde Partnership for Transport’s decision to explore all available bus powers, including franchising, as part of its Strathclyde regional bus strategy.

Ivan McKee

I understand that implementing a franchise system could incur costs that run into several tens of millions of pounds. If funding is available for that investment, has the Scottish Government considered deploying it now, in advance of the roll-out of any franchise system, in order to enable SPT to support the expansion of bus routes that are currently deemed to be uneconomic, but which are critical lifelines for communities in my constituency?

Jim Fairlie

As the member is well aware, the funding that is allocated through the general revenue grant can be used to support bus services. It is the responsibility of each local transport authority, including SPT, to allocate its total financial resources to support bus and other transport services on the basis of local needs and priorities, having first fulfilled its statutory obligations. Ultimately, it is for locally elected representatives to make local decisions on how best to improve the bus services for communities in their area.

Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (Regional Bus Network)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of Strathclyde Partnership for Transport’s recommendations for the future delivery of the regional bus network. (S6O-03282)

The Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity (Jim Fairlie)

As I have said, it is for each local transport authority to determine which of the powers that are available to it should be used to improve services in its area. I understand that SPT has completed an options development and appraisal stage for its regional bus strategy, which considers a range of bus powers, including local authority-run services, bus service improvement partnerships and bus franchising, and that it intends to commence a six-week public consultation on its recommendations next month. I look forward to the outcomes of that consultation. Transport Scotland will continue to engage with all stakeholders to improve bus services across Scotland.

John Mason

SPT has decided to go ahead with the franchising system, if it can, but it reckons that it will take between five and seven years and will cost between £45 million and £85 million per annum. I suspect that there is little point in it doing that work if it is not going to get the money. Does the minister think that the money should come entirely from local councils? Would any of it come from the Scottish Government?

Jim Fairlie

We encourage all local transport authorities to explore all the options that are available to them to improve bus services in their area. I understand that SPT is at an early stage in the development of its regional bus strategy, which is looking at a range of options for improving services. As the strategy develops, it will require more detailed appraisals to determine which of the various options with which to progress. In a climate of increasing financial pressure, it is important that the business case for improving bus services is made robustly and in an evidence-based way in order to support future decision making on funding.

There are a couple of supplementary questions.

Paul Sweeney (Glasgow) (Lab)

SPT’s ambitious proposal to introduce a bus franchise for greater Glasgow is a welcome milestone, but SPT may establish a bus service improvement partnership with private operators in the interim—a move that risks sidetracking and delaying efforts to introduce the regional bus franchise. The Scottish Government has cut SPT’s capital budget for next year to zero. Will the Scottish Government review that ridiculous position and provide SPT with the capital that it needs—perhaps via the Glasgow city region deal—to deliver a bus franchise at speed and bypass an interim bus service improvement plan with private operators?

Those may well be the member’s views, but I go back to the point that it is up to the local transport authority to decide how it will progress.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

This week, the C60 bus service connecting Callander to Killin will be completely withdrawn, leaving many people abandoned, including those in my community of Lochearnhead. Stirling Council attempted to retender the service but, predictably, no private operator has come forward with an acceptable bid. What practical support is available to rural councils—and in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs national park—to take charge of bus services through franchising or even running their own services? Some of those services could link into the services that SPT will be running to the west.

The question was not strictly to do with SPT, but perhaps, minister, you could respond as relevantly as you can.

Jim Fairlie

Yes—thanks, Presiding Officer. We have provided local transport authorities with a range of tools to improve bus services. I know that the member is aware that we launched the community bus fund last year to support local authorities in exploring those powers as well as improving access to bus services. Ten projects have been taken forward in 2023-24, pending compliance with fair work first requirements. They include projects to review local bus networks and to develop local transport bus strategies. By using those powers, local transport authorities, working with stakeholders, can improve local services over the longer term and make them more available, accessible and affordable.

Ferry Service (Rosyth and Zeebrugge)

To ask the Scottish Government what recent discussions it has had regarding the proposed reinstatement of a direct ferry link between Rosyth and Zeebrugge. (S6O-03281)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

I assure the member of the Scottish Government’s continuing commitment to improve our transport and trade links to the continent, which has even more resonance after the United Kingdom Government’s damaging exit from the European Union. I have personally engaged with interested parties—although I think that the destination has changed, if the member is aware. Transport Scotland officials continue to communicate regularly with potential operators and Scotland’s main ports.

When I met Lord Davies of Gower, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, in London on 5 February, I discussed the issue. I subsequently received disappointing written confirmation from him that the UK Government is not in a position to financially support a new service from Rosyth; it highlighted the risk of potential legal action should other operators consider such support to be a subsidy.

Because of subsidy control restrictions, any service is required to operate on a commercial basis. I hope that prospective commercial operators are able to commit to operating a successful and profitable service. However, that is ultimately a decision for them.

Annabelle Ewing

I thank the cabinet secretary for her answer. Of course, the updated route under consideration is to Dunkirk.

I welcome the fact that the Scottish Government has been engaging in recent discussions with its own agencies and with the UK Government. I note the point about subsidy but, given the importance of a direct and vital trade link between Scotland and Europe, I wonder what other activity the Scottish Government could engage in to help to get this over the line.

Fiona Hyslop

As I said in my first answer, UK subsidy control rules significantly restrict any support that the Scottish Government could provide. However, I and my officials in Transport Scotland continue to engage with prospective operators. The Scottish National Investment Bank could be another route to supporting new services, and VisitScotland has well-established marketing opportunities to attract more tourism to Scotland. We have spoken with the Scottish National Investment Bank and VisitScotland about the potential opportunities, which we have flagged with potential operators.

I reiterate that there is a political will to support a commercially viable service but, with significant budget pressures, we have to be cognisant of the subsidy issues and the prospect of potential legal action if additional funding was provided, which makes it more important that any solution is led by the commercial ferry sector.

Bus Provision in Banffshire and Buchan Coast (Engagement with Operators)

To ask the Scottish Government when it last engaged with commercial bus operators such as Stagecoach regarding bus provision in areas like the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency. (S6O-03283)

The Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity (Jim Fairlie)

The Scottish Government regularly meets commercial bus operators to discuss a wide range of issues that impact the sector. The most recent meeting with officials took place on 12 March. Although I have not yet had the opportunity to meet Stagecoach directly since my ministerial appointment, I look forward to doing so in due course.

The majority of bus services in Scotland operate in a deregulated market. However, I am committed, in conjunction with bus operators and local authorities, to continuing to look at ways of improving services to ensure that everyone has accessible public transport, which provides vital connections.

Karen Adam

I recently conducted a survey in my constituency, which received an overwhelming 1,144 responses. Almost 90 per cent of respondents feel that bus services in the area have deteriorated in the past year, and more than four in five respondents rely on those services to commute to work or school and attend vital national health service appointments. What is the minister doing to encourage companies such as Stagecoach to improve their services for constituents?

Jim Fairlie

I very much recognise the importance of local bus services to communities and that ensuring the long-term sustainability of vital local routes is a collaborative endeavour. To that end, I encourage Karen Adam to continue to work with bus operators in the area to promote the use of services and to help maintain and grow the patronage that is needed to underpin the stability and longevity of those transport links.

Karen Adam might be aware that, through the bus task force, we have worked with operators and relevant parties to address the issues that the bus industry as a whole has been facing. A report will be published shortly that will include a best practice guide for community engagement.

Liam Kerr has a brief supplementary question.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

A major issue in north-east bus provision is abuse of and violence against drivers and passengers. Following the tragic death of Keith Rollinson in Elgin, Unite published a 15-point blueprint to improve safety, and it has called for legislation to create a specific offence of committing a crime against transport workers. Has the minister read that blueprint? If so, which of the 15 points particularly interests him? What is his view on the proposed legislation?

What I can tell Liam Kerr is that the cabinet secretary has written to Unite to set up a meeting, and that process is under way.

That concludes portfolio question time. Before we move to the next item of business, there will be a brief pause to allow those on the front benches to change positions.