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Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, March 28, 2024


Public Transport (Fair Fares Review)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Annabelle Ewing)

The next item of business is a debate in the name of Fiona Hyslop, on the future of public transport—the fair fares review. I invite members who wish to speak in the debate to press their request-to-speak buttons.


The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

Scotland’s public transport system is a key enabler for growth and opportunity because it provides vital links between where people live, learn, earn and socialise. Transport is the one service that impacts on all of us all over Scotland and is doing so more over time. We know that access to affordable and reliable public transport services helps people and communities to connect to jobs, education, public services, leisure, recreation, friends and family. We also recognise that a sustainable and viable public transport system is vital to achieving our ambitions on net zero, as well as to our target to reduce the distance driven in cars by 20 per cent by 2030.

The “Fair Fares Review” report brings together a timely overview with information, analysis and international comparisons to help us collectively challenge ourselves on what the future of public transport in Scotland should be. It tells us that we are unusual internationally in having completely free concessionary travel. We subsidise rail and ferries far more than bus. Weekday journeys on rail are now at 80 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, and weekday bus journeys are at around 72 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Bus passenger numbers fell by 21 per cent in the 10 years leading up to 2019-20, while demand for road, ferry, aviation and cycling all saw growth in the same period. Countries such as Singapore have a national system and support but have more state control. The review report tells us much more, and I urge people to read the detail in it.

Public transport is central to delivering the First Minister’s missions to tackle poverty and protect people from harm; to deliver a fair, green and growing economy; and to prioritise our public services. That is why, in the 2024-25 budget, we are spending £3.9 billion on transport across Scotland, with almost £2.5 billion of that focusing on the public transport network. That includes £430 million in funding for concessionary travel and bus services; £308 million in active travel, low carbon and other transport policy; £1.6 billion to operate, maintain and improve Scotland’s railway; and £524 million to expand our vital support for rural and island connectivity.

The review reiterates our commitment to providing financial support to access public transport for those groups across society that face particular geographical and other challenges in accessing public services, labour markets, education and leisure opportunities. It confirms our commitment to maintain the existing eligibility for the national concessionary travel schemes for those groups that currently benefit, which comprise more than 2.3 million people across Scotland. Those are the most generous schemes of their kind in the United Kingdom, enabling more than 3 million journeys per week.

We will develop a pilot project to extend free travel on rail services for companions accompanying eligible blind persons concessionary travel card holders. We will also develop proposals to provide free foot-passenger travel on interisland ferries for island residents aged under 22, and to extend the existing national ferry concessionary scheme to island residents aged under 22.

We want to do more to support fare-paying passengers, which is why we will develop a proposal for bus flat fares. We will learn lessons from the ScotRail peak fares removal pilot to inform medium to longer-term rail fares reform. That will all be complemented by the development of a bus service improvement plan and a delivery framework over the next 18 months to improve future availability of bus services, and the establishment of a national forum on the future of public transport to co-ordinate improvement of delivery of a quality, accessible, available and affordable integrated public transport system.

Despite the significant investment and the strategic direction set out by the Government, our public transport system faces a number of complex challenges. I want the debate to allow us to discuss that collectively, openly and with consideration. There are changes now in how and when people travel due to the growth of home working since the onset of the Covid pandemic, which has led to reduced patronage.

On bus, there are particular challenges—which we heard about in the previous parliamentary session—that pre-date Covid. Reduced passenger numbers result in reduced revenues flowing to public transport operators, which impacts on the financial viability of services. We need to grow patronage across all modes, but particularly in the fragile bus sector, not least because bus is currently most heavily used by lower-income groups. Therefore, any reduction in bus services will have the greatest impact on those on lower incomes, potentially limiting their links to jobs and better-paid jobs, education and other opportunities in life.

The need to grow patronage is made all the more urgent because of recent years’ rises in inflation, which mean that public transport operators now bear increased costs in providing services with regard to energy, pay and so on. That can lead to pressure on operators to increase fares, thereby reducing the attractiveness of public transport and resulting in requests for additional Government support. Similarly, individuals and households face increased pressure on their budgets and on their ability to absorb the costs of public transport due to rising household bills. Those financial pressures are particularly pronounced for people living in poverty, for whom public transport fares account for a greater proportion of their disposable income.

In addressing all those challenges, the Government has to negotiate a complex delivery landscape, with different ownership models and different regulatory regimes applying across different modes. Although our ScotRail and Caledonia sleeper services are under public ownership, our public bus networks primarily operate under private ownership and control. Therefore, the levers that we have to deploy and the amount of control that we can exercise vary across the system.

In addition—this is significant, given the importance of Government funding to support our public transport system—the financial situation that the Scottish Government is facing is by far the most challenging since devolution. The shocks of more than a decade of austerity, a hard Brexit, the Covid-19 pandemic and other factors are placing extreme inflationary pressures on public finances. It is therefore more important than ever to prioritise support to those who need it most and to ensure value for money in our public services. All those issues could have a substantial detrimental impact on our public transport system and on the communities, individuals and businesses that rely on it.

This Parliament is at its best when we all come with our considered views and our experiences from constituencies not only to discuss the immediate issues that we are trying to address in the short term but to plot a course for the longer term. That is what I hope will be obtained from the open debate here today.

The fair fares review has looked at individual policy interventions on the cost and availability of public transport, as well as specific transport funding and delivery models that have been adopted in a range of other countries across the world. It has considered the implications and lessons learned from those for more fundamental reform in Scotland. The review has included a comprehensive analysis of subsidy funding, patronage and benchmarking against international comparatives. Also, through workshops undertaken in conjunction with the Poverty Alliance, it has considered the lived experience of those who are impacted by poverty and how access to public transport affects their lives. Indeed, Parliament had a debate on a committee report on employability for people facing poverty, and transport was an aspect of that debate.

Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

Rural bus routes are in decline, with only 17 per cent of residents in remote and rural areas using the bus at least once a month. Although I appreciate that city bus routes offer stronger financial incentives, residents in rural areas deserve equal access to reliable and frequent bus services. Will the cabinet secretary support the implementation of provisions in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 to allow local councils to propose bus services in their areas to address the gaps in bus services?

Fiona Hyslop

The 2019 act, which was introduced by the Scottish Government, exists to enable that choice. Different local authorities are taking different approaches. Highland Council, for example, has taken control and had transfers of both staff and buses to itself to run, to show what can be done in its area. I think that that has happened in the city of Inverness.

I agree with Sue Webber that some of the biggest challenges are in rural and semi-rural areas, and it is important to try get sustainability in a privately operated, run and regulated system. I stress that we need to give confidence and support to the private bus operators, who are looking at innovative ways of tackling that. I am particularly impressed with the work of Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire councils with First Bus to address issues that concern not just the city but the shire.

The review sets out a number of short, medium and long-term recommendations and actions to ensure a sustainable and integrated approach to public transport fares and funding that supports the future long-term viability of a public transport system that is more accessible, available and affordable for people throughout Scotland. In that regard, rural and semi-rural areas will be central to our thinking.

Specifically on buses, I have highlighted the proposal to develop an area-based pilot scheme to provide flat fares on bus travel, or reduce fares on zonal integrated travel, for 22-year-olds to 60-year-olds who currently pay to travel by bus. That will help to grow the bus market and assist individuals with their travel costs.

Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

I welcome the open debate that we are having. I want to get a little more understanding of the cabinet secretary’s thinking on the flat fares scheme and how it would potentially work. Would that be a city-wide arrangement, or would it also be for buses coming into in the city, as in the Aberdeen area? Would there be a distance limit? Can she give us any other information?

Fiona Hyslop

Those are things that we will want to work out, but I am keen to see rural and city comparators. Going back to an earlier point, some of the challenges are particular to semi-rural and rural areas. We will be working with private operators, and discussions on those issues have to take place with them to identify what will make sense.

The distance limit approach is interesting. Where that has been used in city areas, we have seen that it can work well, but the geography of Scotland means that there are quite long-distance journeys. In fact, Mark Ruskell was reflecting on a journey that cost £11 or £12. Given that issue, we need to work through things to make sure that that would be a sensible proposition.

To increase stability in the bus system, Transport Scotland, working with Government, industry and other stakeholders, will develop a bus service improvement plan over the next 18 months.

On ferries, we will look at the road equivalent tariff for the Clyde and Hebrides network, which has been very successful. We want to protect and support island residents, but we will also consider further alternatives for non-islanders, particularly in relation to vehicle fares during the summer timetable.

Better integration between public transport services is vital, and we want to set out how we can work with different modes of transport. A lot of work is already happening on that—in particular, in developments in rail and ferry—to improve integration for those who have to use multiple services to complete end-to-end journeys.

It is important that we recognise that, due to legislative requirements, the area is complex. We will have to look at some issues in the medium to longer term. I know that members will be impatient for us to move on, and we will commence a review of transport governance.

I have highlighted the removal of peak rail fares, and I am sure that members will want to comment on that in their remarks.

We want to ensure—this is an important point—that we inform considerations of a wider roll-out of an integrated ticketing system and a national bus or multimodal travel card. However, we must also develop fundamental proposals for national or regional fare structures across all modes in Scotland, as seen in other parts of Europe and globally. That is the prize. It could transform how people pay for and value public transport journeys, and encourage more people to use public transport. We will look at different methods and reflect the particular needs of different communities.

We want to develop a more accessible, available, affordable and high-quality integrated public transport system. It is a top priority for the Government, and it will help us to deliver in so many other ways. I am keen to hear the reflections of members and to hear how, together, we can further strengthen our approach to public transport in Scotland. This is not just for next month or next year but for future decades. I welcome the debate.


Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I apologise—I am a little bit hoarse today. I also apologise for having to leave as soon as I have spoken. I have already spoken about that with the Presiding Officer and the Cabinet Secretary for Transport.

We have been waiting a long time for the fair fares review. It is way overdue. If it had been the equivalent of waiting for a train, we would have jumped in a car and got there quicker. The review was keenly awaited, but nothing was promised so, to that end, it did not disappoint.

When the cross-party group on sustainable transport reported on the Scottish Government’s commitment to reduce car mileage by 20 per cent by 2030, one of the recommendations was that public transport should be made more affordable. That should have been the starting point of the review, because, for fair fares, we should read “affordable fares”—fares that make us want to jump on a bus, train or ferry instead of using the car.

The Scottish Government released figures yesterday that showed that just 10 per cent of people use public transport to get to work. Therein lies the challenge. If we compare current public transport use with pre-pandemic levels, we see that rail use is still down by a third and bus use is down by 17 per cent. The review could and should have been packed with concrete commitments to change that. Instead, it is full of the kind of Government speak that we have got used to, with no concrete action offered. The plan involves kicking the can down the potholed road.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

Although I accept that fares are an issue, I note that some people still use their cars when they have a bus pass. Clearly, for some people, it is more of a cultural thing, or they just want to use their car, and it is not to do with the cost. Does Graham Simpson accept that?

Graham Simpson

Of course I accept that. Some people like using their car. However, some people have to use their car, because there is no bus.

I have to point out the shortcomings of the review, but I want to help the debate by suggesting things that we could do. We are at a starting point, and we need to continue the conversation. Although I might be critical in this debate, we should continue to talk. I hope that the cabinet secretary will take some of these ideas on board, and I hope that we can work together.

In the review, the word “pilot” appears 12 times. In Government speak, a “pilot” means a delay in doing anything. The review says:

“we will develop a proposal for a bus flat fares pilot for an area-based scheme to provide flat fares on bus travel, or reduced fares on zonal integrated travel for consideration in future budgets”.

As I pointed out in the briefing by Transport Scotland officials that I attended, we do not need a pilot. Lothian Buses has been using flat fares and a daily cap for years, and it works. There is your pilot. We just need to get on with it.

Will the member take an intervention?

I will do, if I can have the time back.


Mark Ruskell

I appreciate the point that the member makes, but does he recognise that it is important that policy is evidence based? Although we have evidence of what has been done in Lothian, we do not have evidence on how a flat-fare system might work in an urban-rural area of the type that is typical in much of Scotland.

Transport Scotland should have sought data on that from Lothian Buses, but it does not appear to have done that. That would be the starting point.

Will the member take an intervention?

Graham Simpson

No. I have taken two interventions already.

I have been calling for a bus fare cap across the country, as has Labour, but that proposal was not even considered. How is that even credible? Such a cap should be considered straight away. That would help people across the country. In particular, it would help people who are living in poverty; more importantly, it would help people who are living in poverty in rural areas, where bus fares are higher.

Will Graham Simpson take an intervention?

Graham Simpson

The cabinet secretary knows that I am in a rush today, and she knows why.

I have been discussing the idea of a bus fare cap with my friends in the Poverty Alliance.

One of the more interesting ideas in the review is the idea of giving free bus travel to addicts, although the review does not say on what basis that would be done. Mention is made of another pilot. Would that apply to all travel by addicts, or would it apply only for certain journeys? How could such a scheme work? I will take an intervention from the cabinet secretary if she can clear that up.

Fiona Hyslop

Everybody recognises that access to health services is really important for people with addictions—that was recommended by the experts on the Scottish Drug Deaths Taskforce.

In relation to a national flat-fare scheme, what costings have the Conservatives done on that?

I take the opportunity to advise members that we have quite a bit of time in hand this afternoon.

Graham Simpson

Smashing. I don’t have any time in hand. [Laughter.]

I was keen to work with the Government on developing costings for such a scheme, and I still am.

If the Government thinks that people with substance issues should get free bus travel—which is an idea that we can look at—what about unpaid carers and other groups, such as the unemployed? The review could have promised an expansion of eligibility for reimbursement under the national concessionary travel scheme to services that are provided by community transport operators under a section 19 permit. That appears as option 4 on pages 34 and 35 of the review, which is one of the options not being progressed. That will mean that under-22s, over-60s, disabled people and, soon, people who are seeking asylum who do not have local bus services in their area but instead rely on community transport will continue to be disadvantaged. They will have a free bus pass in name only.

The NCTS is a fantastic enabler, but that is the case only if people have local services on which to use it. As Scotland’s bus network continues to shrink, the need for community transport to plug the gaps will only grow.

As well as a bus fare cap, we have been calling for the free travel to which the companions of blind people with concessionary cards are entitled to be extended to rail travel. I had a members’ business debate on the subject in December 2022, and the proposal received support from all parties, except the Liberal Democrats. The then Minister for Transport, Jenny Gilruth, spoke of her upcoming rail conversation, which never happened. She said that she would be getting advice from officials on the costs of a national scheme, and she mentioned the fair fares review—it goes back a long way—but if the minister was expecting to get advice on costs in December 2022, surely we should be further forward than developing

“the feasibility of a pilot project”.

In any case, at the time, charities in the sector, such as Sight Scotland, estimated that the cost of such an extension would be about £2 million. Let us just get on and do it.

We have also called for the extension of the concessionary travel scheme for under-22s to ferry travel for young people who live on islands. The review talks about developing proposals, so let us get them developed. Developing proposals is not the same as saying that we will do something, which is what the review should have said.

On rail travel, the review says:

“We will monitor and evaluate the ScotRail Peak Fares Removal Pilot which has been extended until June 2024, to inform medium to longer term rail fares reform.”

Why not just commit to keeping that permanently?

Sticking with rail, I recently called for the introduction of a ScotRail tap-on, tap-off system. Some trials of such a system are being done in England, and I think that that would make rail travel a lot easier and would ensure that people always pay the lowest fare—a fair fare. The technology for that clearly exists, so I urge the cabinet secretary to look at that idea if she is not doing so already.

On the subject of technology, the review did not look at systems such as “Mobility as a Service”—which allows multimodal and cross-operator travel by using an app—even though we have some pilots of that in Scotland. Some parts of England are way ahead of us on that, which is, frankly, becoming embarrassing.

Nicola Sturgeon was promising a national smart card—to be called the saltire card, naturally—in 2012, but that has not happened. However, we do have the national smart ticketing advisory board, which should be tasked with powering ahead on that within months, not years.

Fiona Hyslop

The member makes an important point, but things have moved on and people, particularly younger people, are using their phones to tap on and tap off. That is exactly the technology that we are developing—it might be not a card but a national integrated system. I met the chair of the board just this week, and there is significant progress in working with representatives of all the modes that Mr Simpson referred to.

Graham Simpson

That is encouraging. If someone could use a bank card to tap on and off a train service—as happens on the London underground, which I am sure the cabinet secretary has used—that would be the way to go. It is certainly worth investigating.

The advisory board should speak to companies such as Fairtiq and others whose technology is being used across Europe to make travel easier and, in many cases, cheaper.

Overall, the review is disappointing. It offers nothing but vague language. There are no firm commitments, and there is nothing to lure people back on to public transport. If the Government wants to cut how much people use their cars, making public transport more affordable is the way to go.

On that note, I have to go.


Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

In opening the debate for Scottish Labour, I welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement that she wants to take an inclusive approach to delivering the public transport reform that Scotland so badly needs. I was happy to agree that the publication of the fair fares review should be debated without a motion, so that we can really open up a debate about the review’s proposals and about what we are going to do to make our transport system work.

For too many people, Scotland’s public transport system is broken, and it is crucial that we fix it. My comments today are intended as constructive criticism to widen a debate that should ultimately give the Scottish people access to the mobility that the country needs if we are to see the social and economic benefits of a public transport system that works for people and meets the challenges of climate change.

The fair fares review has been the answer to almost every question about how we can make our public transport system accessible, affordable and reliable for everyone since that review was first announced, in 2021. We have been told time and time again that the work that Transport Scotland was doing would offer the insight and data needed to deliver the kind of reforms that Scotland’s public transport system has been crying out for. I am therefore disappointed that the product of three years’ work is a total of nine action points, divided into four short-term actions and five longer-term recommendations, with no clear timeline for delivery.

In the short term, where we need to see action, we are committed to little. A proposal on flat bus fares will be developed for consideration in future budgets. A policy will be developed on free bus travel for those who are seeking asylum, which will include previously announced funding, and the feasibility of offering concessionary travel to people with a substance dependency will be explored. Given that local authorities are being held to ransom by bus operators who are pulling out of any route that is not deemed profitable, as we have seen recently in West Lothian, and given that local authorities do not have the resources to take meaningful action to control bus services in their areas, I cannot believe that that is the extent of the Scottish Government’s radical thinking.

In my opinion, the most exciting proposal in the current session of Parliament has come from Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, which is now consulting on its plans to franchise bus services and take control of public bus routes and services. SPT has been very clear that its plans will need investment and co-operation from the Scottish Government, and I urge the cabinet secretary to work with it to deliver on those potentially transformative plans. Indeed, I suggest that, if we are to address the challenges, we must accept that the devolution of transport must go well beyond this Parliament and the Scottish Government. It must reach the regional transport authorities if we are to create the public control of buses that is absolutely required in order to deliver modal shift from private cars to public transport.

Fiona Hyslop

The member makes an important point about the role of regional transport partnerships, and he is right to identify the recent decision by SPT. The SNP Government introduced the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, which enabled franchising and other methods. However, there is a challenge, because it is not just about Strathclyde Partnership for Transport. A number of authorities across the country are developing their thinking. I mentioned what Highland Council is doing under a municipal ownership model, but the South West of Scotland Transport Partnership is also developing its thinking, and I cannot second-guess what they will want to do or the choices that they will make.

The member is right, but it may be a question of horses for courses in different regional transport partnership areas. He should not think that the Scottish Government should necessarily support one and not others—in, I may add, a very financially restricted situation that limits what we can do in the short term. I understand the ambition, but the question is how we can change all of Scotland.

Alex Rowley

I absolutely agree, and I will go on to say that. However, I do not believe that this Parliament or Transport Scotland can tackle and solve the problems. The transport infrastructure is different in different parts of Scotland. The key point that I am trying to make is that we need far greater devolution of powers down the way, into local authorities and, through them, into regional transport authorities, and we need to be willing, when necessary, to take steps to legislate and put in resources to support them.

If we are to address the big transport challenges, we must be bold. That means getting the powers out of here and into local authorities, but with the legislation and budgets that they require. When I was in Manchester earlier this month, I saw at first hand what powers being held at the regional level can achieve, with public control of buses. Greater Manchester is made up of 10 local authorities, with a population of 2.8 million. It has price caps on buses whereby fares for under-16s are capped at £1 and fares for those aged 16 to 60 are capped at £2. There is free travel for those aged over 60. Most important, franchising has created local control, and bus routes do not just disappear.

The member mentioned powers and resources. Can he say anything about where the resources would come from? In London, the subsidy is about £100 per head because of the Transport for London model.

Alex Rowley

I am not trying to get to the London model.

It is interesting that a number of models have developed across England. I talked about Manchester, but Leicester has a different model, which I am just starting to look at. A lot of models are out there.

Another point that I make to Mr Mason is that, although we can make short-term gains, I am speaking about some things five or 10 years in advance. It may be an age thing for me, Presiding Officer, but if, 10 or 20 years back, we had done something that looked 10 or 20 years forward, we might not have some of these issues now. The mix involves the short term, but the Parliament also needs to start to think about the medium term and the longer term. That is how we will resolve some of the massive transport challenges that we have.

As has been stated time and again, there is no point in people having a bus pass if they can access no bus to take them where they need to go. The same principle applies to ferries, which are lifeline services for islanders, as buses are for us on the mainland.

When it comes to trains, I and the travelling public welcome the peak fares suspension pilot, which will have saved my rail-using constituents hundreds of pounds by the time the pilot ends. Those hundreds of pounds show that rail can be an affordable alternative to the car, help my constituents with the cost of living crisis and can be spent on our local communities to benefit local economies.

Our public transport system cannot wait for the next review to provide the answers. We need an end to the multitude of policy papers and never-ending Government strategies. We need actions, not options. There is no magic bullet or one-size-fits-all solution for the transport issues that we face, but a good start is to recognise that we must devolve powers and budgets and empower regional authorities—which are, in my view, very much up for the challenge.


Beatrice Wishart (Shetland Islands) (LD)

I welcome the long-awaited fair fares review, which has taken four transport ministers more than three years. I submitted written parliamentary questions asking when we could expect publication. The Scottish Government is late by three months to its own stated deadline of the end of 2023.

I am a little disappointed in the final publication of the review. In response to the various questions that I asked of the Scottish Government, I was told to expect answers in the fair fares review or the islands connectivity plan.

I welcome the Scottish Government’s taking on board my repeated calls—and those of Shetland’s previous members of the Scottish Youth Parliament—that, in the islands, as ferries are used as buses are elsewhere, the under-22 bus pass provision should be developed and extended to interisland ferry foot passengers. It is a shame that those who were under 22 when they called for equality in the national travel concessions will not be able to benefit from the change, given the time that it has taken to get to this point. I hope that the Scottish Government is able to speed up plans to swiftly enact that provision and ensure the maximum benefit for young islanders.

I also welcome the expansion of the age limit for four concessionary ferry journeys per year on the external service—which was previously for those aged 16 to 18 years—to include island residents aged up to 22.

Unfortunately, the review is silent on the issue of the scrapped shared cabins policy that existed for decades on the northern isles ferry route. Serco NorthLink Ferries changed that policy at the start of Covid-19 and insists that it has no plans for its return. In turn, that has meant that those who travel alone on a concessionary fare and who seek a cabin—which provides the only place in which to lie flat during the overnight crossing—have to use two of their concessionary vouchers to secure a whole cabin to themselves or must contribute financially to the fare. Previously, only one voucher was required. It is worth noting that people who have an entitlement to concessionary travel vouchers are more likely to require a cabin for the journey. Islanders who have an entitlement to a concession and who previously used shared cabins now find that, as a consequence of that option not being available, their travel entitlement is, in effect, halved.

I have been repeatedly told that the removal of shared cabins is Serco NorthLink Ferries’ decision to make but that there would be consideration, under the fair fares review or islands connectivity plan, of the impact of that decision on the concessionary vouchers. There is no mention of that in the review, and it is simply not good enough that a lifeline service can have a long-standing provision radically altered in that fashion without any assessment of the impact on those who rely on the lifeline service. As the cabinet secretary mentioned earlier, it is about enabling travel for people in poverty. That is one example of where a change in policy would help. Although I urge Serco Northlink to look again at that policy, I ask that the cabinet secretary and Transport Scotland look at the implications that the decision has had.

Similarly, island residents are impacted by the requirement to pay seasonal fares to use the lifeline ferry service, which has an unfair impact on those who rely on the service for everyday needs. An island resident exemption from seasonal fares would help to address that. The northern isles route is a vital day-to-day lifeline for residents and an essential economic link for businesses. Its primary purpose is not to provide a profit-making cruise ship—a sentiment that is often expressed to me by my constituents.

Scottish Liberal Democrats want to boost Scotland’s connectivity and strengthen our climate commitments. We need to avoid the west coast experience and invest in a reliable ferry service across all of Scotland’s routes. We cannot expect our vessels to go on way beyond their original intended lifespan. New vessels are an investment in the future viability and prosperity of our islands.

We also call for a change in the current ferry booking system in relation to issues that have plagued northern isles residents looking to make advanced sailings. Bookings are currently not open for January 2025. This weekend, many families will be getting together over Easter to make their winter plans for a sunshine break or to visit family over the festive period. We would like to see an end to cliff edges in the current booking system and instead have rolling bookings open a year in advance.

For all rail passengers, we would also like to see the exploration of new rail lines, especially in areas where public transport links are poor; a cut in train fares and new options for two or three-day-a-week season tickets to reflect new ways of working; and—following the Transport for London model—the introduction of a powerful regional transport partnership to take control of bus services.

We move to the open debate. I advise members that there is still some time in hand and therefore plenty of time for interventions, should members wish to take them.


Gordon MacDonald (Edinburgh Pentlands) (SNP)

Before I make my contribution to the debate, I should make members aware that, prior to my election in 2011, I was employed by Lothian Buses for more than 20 years. Part of my responsibility was calculating route profitability across Edinburgh and submitting national concession scheme claims to Transport Scotland.

I welcome the Government’s fair fares review and its aim to support public transport to become affordable and accessible. The Campaign for Better Transport briefing highlighted that, in 2022-23, there were 301 million bus journeys in Scotland, with 146 million—or nearly half—made under the national concessionary travel scheme for over-60s and under-22s.

In the coming year, that support for the bus industry is expected to reach £370 million relating to concessions, and just under £50 million for the network support grant.

The low flat fare that is referenced in the review is the business model that my previous employer has successfully operated over many decades, based on a high volume of passengers on a low flat adult fare—currently £2—which allows travel anywhere in Edinburgh and right across Edinburgh, carried on 800 vehicles with an average age of just six years.

Fiona Hyslop

Gordon MacDonald is right to identify Lothian Buses. He made the point about the high volume of passengers. However, there is a challenge around how to introduce a flat fare in a—perhaps rural or semi-rural—system in which there is not initially the volume of passengers that Lothian Buses has developed over a long time because of people’s good experience of the reliability and frequency of its buses.

Gordon MacDonald

I thank the cabinet secretary for that point. She will be aware that Lothian Buses has recently extended into East Lothian and West Lothian. It may well be that it has taken on board the issue of low volume and further distances to be travelled.

Although a low flat fare is welcome, on its own it will not deliver the modal switch that the Government seeks. It will also require investment in new buses that are dependable, comfortable, well maintained and kept clean, and which have closed-circuit television to keep passengers and drivers safe. To make journey times more attractive compared with those taken by car, there require to be park-and-ride sites to reduce car congestion in our towns and cities, bus priority lanes in order that buses can compete, and bus trackers to provide some certainty on bus times. Without such improvements in vehicles and infrastructure, commuters will not move over to public transport no matter how cheap the ticket price.

All the above features already exist in and around the Edinburgh area. The result is that, at a time when bus patronage declined by 21 per cent in the 10 years leading up to 2019-20, Lothian Buses was carrying an ever-increasing number of passengers. In 2019, it carried 119 million—a 27-year high—plus a further 5 million passengers due to the expanded network that I have mentioned. Then the pandemic hit. Last year, Lothian’s total dropped by 14 million to 110 million passengers.

Despite that drop, only last year, Lothian Buses added to its long list of transport awards when it won two prizes at the UK bus industry awards. The first was for excellence in transport accessibility, which recognised improved access to travel for disabled people, and the other was for excellence in innovation and technology. That highlights what can be achieved when a transport operator is owned by the public and can invest in its service without being concerned about ever-increasing and unsustainable shareholder dividends that are demanded by a large parent transport group.

Will the member take an intervention?

Gordon MacDonald

Let me finish my point first.

Lothian Buses is the largest municipal bus company in the UK. The City of Edinburgh Council owns 91 per cent and the other councils in Lothian share the remaining 9 per cent. In its last profitable year, prior to the Covid pandemic, it paid out £7.7 million in dividends to local councils.

I will take Sue Webber’s intervention.

Sue Webber

I am sure that Gordon MacDonald will agree that, before the pandemic, the shareholder dividends that came from Lothian Buses were used to invest in services across Lothian and the city. It is also key to mention that its services are operated on commercial terms by experts in the field and not by people who work for the public local authority.

Gordon MacDonald

The £7.7 million that I just referred to is paid to the council, and the reinvestment in the network is made by Lothian Buses.

I also want to touch on the move towards a national integrated ticketing system. In my experience, bus companies are protective of their market shares and are reluctant to share the data that is required to allow ticket income to be properly allocated. An example of those difficulties can be seen by examining the performance of One-Ticket Ltd, which was formed here in Edinburgh in 2001. Its main objective was to increase the use of public transport and to achieve modal transfer from car to public transport in the Edinburgh and south east of Scotland transport partnership—SEStran—areas. The company brought together all the bus companies and ScotRail under the umbrella of an integrated ticketing system, but, in my experience, it has offered a very marginalised product. In 2010, it had a turnover of £1.3 million, but its annual accounts in 2017 identified total sales of only £850,000, and that figure has declined further in recent years. If a multiticket scheme is to be successful, the 20-year operations of One-Ticket in the Lothian area need to be closely examined so that lessons are learned and its difficulties are not replicated.

One mode of travel that was not mentioned in the review relates to the Edinburgh tram service, which does not qualify for the national concession scheme. Until last year, its costs were borne by Edinburgh taxpayers through their council tax payments; those costs are now being met by Lothian Buses. Although I understand that the tram service is considered a fixed-rail mode of transport and that, if it became eligible, there could be calls for other fixed-rail operators to ask for a similar subsidy via the concession scheme, it is the case that the bus company in Edinburgh is bearing the tram service’s concession costs, which not only distorts the transport market but impacts on the bus company’s profitability.

As a result of Covid, many people are still reluctant to take public transport. If we are to reduce the number of car journeys in our towns and cities, we have to reassure the public that, post-pandemic, public transport is safe and reliable. I welcome the report as a foundation from which to move towards a more affordable, reliable and accessible public transport system.


Sue Webber (Lothian) (Con)

Under the Scottish National Party, public transport has become unreliable and far too expensive. Persistent issues such as delays, cancellations and overcrowding are eroding public trust and undermining the effectiveness of essential services. Unless considerable action is taken, our public transport network will continue to decline.

Although the fair fares review addresses some of the issues surrounding accessibility and affordability in public transport, including welcome announcements such as the expansion of the scrapping of peak rail tickets, the review fails to tackle the rising cost of public transport, contains only a few new initiatives and has taken far too long to complete. Without addressing underlying issues such as underinvestment in public transit infrastructure and regulatory barriers to competition, the review’s impact may be limited in scope and short lived.

The Scottish Conservatives want to revitalise Scotland’s railways and support local growth by reopening rail lines and stations. We want to introduce a Scottish smart travel card, which would enable passengers to use all domestic transport anywhere in Scotland with a contactless card or indeed, as many of us do these days, by using their phone. We would also implement provisions in the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 to allow local councils to propose bus services in their areas to address gaps in provision.

However, today I want to focus on buses. In 2022-23, there were 301 million bus journeys in Scotland, accounting for 76 per cent of public transport trips. Lothian Buses, which we heard about extensively from Gordon MacDonald, operates in Edinburgh and is, I would say, considered the gold standard of buses in our country. The fair fares review committed to developing a proposal for a flat-fares pilot, stating:

“we will develop a proposal for a bus flat fares pilot for an area-based scheme to provide flat fares”—

all this alliteration is very difficult—

“on bus travel, or reduced fares on zonal integrated travel for consideration in future budgets”.

That is welcome.

As we have heard, Lothian Buses already uses that flat-fare structure across the network within the Edinburgh city boundary, with familiar zoned bus fares for services that go wider and beyond the city boundary. Those are the Lothian Country and East Coast Buses brands, which reach into suburban and rural areas. We have the opportunity to get information from Lothian Buses on how it would work in both areas.

Fiona Hyslop

This is an open debate, and I am open to changing the name. Fixed price might be a better way of explaining what we want to do.

The interesting thing about Lothian Country, which I know from my constituency experience, is that it is an extension of existing routes. Therefore, the high volume in the town might subsidise the longer routes, for example into West Lothian.

Sue Webber

I know that Lothian Country took over a lot of services from First and McGill’s Buses and relies on express services that do not stop everywhere across the city and so are still specifically for West Lothian residents.

Importantly, there is still the simple taptapcap system in place for a card or a phone, whether people are on Lothian Buses, Lothian Country or East Coast Buses. There are daily and weekly maximums that cap people’s payments. The technology already exists. Instead of having another pilot, we need to move ahead more quickly. There are calls in the city to integrate with the Edinburgh tram, but let us not get ahead of ourselves—let us get the buses and the taptapcap first.

I welcome hearing about the integrated ticketing being multimodal. That is something of a holy grail for me, and I look forward to that moving ahead. London has Transport for London and we have all experienced going across various modes. I welcomed Graham Simpson’s comment about tapping on and tapping off, as that would mean that people would get the best fare no matter where they got on and off public transport.

We need to be mindful of the rise in antisocial behaviour that is being seen on buses. In the transport portfolio questions session before this debate, Liam Kerr, who is a member for North East Scotland, mentioned some of the tragic events that have happened. We need to be mindful that there has been a rise in antisocial behaviour on our buses since the under-22s free bus travel scheme was introduced. We have certainly been aware of that in Edinburgh. I know that Lothian Buses has

“a zero tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour and will not hesitate to remove services from particular areas for a period of time if necessary to keep our colleagues and customers safe.”

Fifty-four per cent of people in large urban areas use a bus at least once a month. That is quite different from the rural statistics that we hear about. It is vital that the bad behaviour of a few youths does not impact on the majority of people who use public transport responsibly.

Although there are concerns across the country that free bus passes are fuelling youth crime and disorder, I do not believe that the solution is to get rid of the free bus pass scheme, even for those abusing the passes in that way. However, I believe—I know that we have debated this in the chamber in the past—that there needs to be some consequence of that poor behaviour.

Back in October last year, I had a very informative visit to the Linburn centre in West Lothian, which is a Sight Scotland veterans centre. I am really pleased that a pilot project to extend free rail travel for companions of blind persons concessionary travel card holders has been agreed in the Scottish Government’s fair fares review. Everyone I met that day was really vocal about that campaign, so I am delighted. That was a great win for them and Sight Scotland.

Those asleep at the wheel might not be aware that I have been campaigning for a new train station in a small place in West Lothian called Winchburgh. That is the vital missing link that would give Winchburgh people direct access to national train services. A station is essential, because Winchburgh people need a sustainable, low-carbon alternative to cars to access services and jobs that many have in the capital city. Winchburgh is set to be home for more than 4,000 families due to a large expansion agreed as part of the Edinburgh city region deal. I am certain that ScotRail would be delighted with the increase in passengers that that would result in. That is why I suspect that it has already built in a stop at Winchburgh in the timetable for the Edinburgh to Dunblane service.

Winchburgh Developments funded a new junction on the M9 to allow direct access for cars from the fast-expanding Winchburgh village. [Interruption.]

I am sorry, but I am getting distracted by members talking. It is okay—I will carry on.

Yes. Please carry on.

Sue Webber

A station is vital if we are to reduce the congestion that our city faces, and we must provide vital public transport links for that expanding village if we want to hit our net zero objectives. I have been working with the Scottish Government, the UK Government, the cabinet secretary and West Lothian Council to make that project a priority. Winchburgh provides the perfect example of revitalising Scotland’s railways to support local growth.


Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

My wife has a nickname for me. She calls me Bob the pedestrian—she also has other nicknames—because I do not drive, although I am very pass-remarkable. I have tried to drive, not because I wanted to, but because of the pressure that I felt under, as driving is seen as the default option. I also wanted to support the day-to-day task of ensuring that, with a young family, we were able to go about our daily lives.

Fortunately for the environment—and, I suspect, for road users, bus companies and ScotRail—driving was certainly not my thing. Therefore, I use trains and buses on an almost daily basis as part of my daily routine, not through choice but through necessity. However, it is worth noting that, with the income that I earn, I have the option of taking taxis from time to time. Quite frankly, that is not an option that many of my constituents have.

The fair fares review is therefore fundamental for my constituents. It is fundamental for people, such as me, who never wanted to rely on a car and could not drive even if they wanted to, and for others who feel poorly served by public transport services, particularly our bus network, in terms of affordability, comfort and connectivity. Significantly, it is also about how we persuade others to make a positive choice to switch to buses or trains and support a very fragile bus network in our country in particular.

Action 6 in the review report is to

“develop the business case for ... a national and/or regional integrated ticket and fare structure.”

I understand that that is for buses. However, I wonder why there is a separate recommendation, in action 1, for flat fares for buses.

I will float two ideas. Both those things could be achieved at the one time. In an area such as Glasgow, as outlined in the review, an integrated ticketing system could also include trains. In looking at that, I would commend consideration to be given to Glasgow’s urban rail and bus network, and indeed the greater Glasgow network. It must surely, in some ways, already be close to being an integrated system.

First Glasgow has a tap-on, tap-off capped-fare ticketing system, capped at £20.40 a week. If I wanted to add on other bus companies, I could get a Glasgow tripper ticket for £24.60, on which commercial companies have reached an agreement. However, if I opted—if members are still following this—for a First Glasgow tap-on, tap-off ticket across the entire network, that would actually be £26.70.

We may forget that the SPT’s own card still exists, for rail, bus and the subway.

Fiona Hyslop

It is striking that we are not only further ahead on the technology platforms for phone and card, with regard to the advice that we are getting on procurement to ensure that the technology can be interoperable among all operators, but we have a far more extensive regional integrated ticketing service. What we do not have—yet—is a national integrated ticketing service. Bob Doris has given an example of a regional integrated ticketing service.

Bob Doris

I appreciate that. I am giving an example of what is almost an integrated regional system. We are almost there, which means that it would be ideal for a pilot, as we are close to delivering what we need to deliver.

There is also the zone card, for example. For four zones and up, it costs £32.90. Someone can, therefore, pay £20.40, £24.60, £26.70 or £32.90. It is not beyond the realms of possibility to get the subway, train and bus in the Glasgow area to introduce an integrated ticketing system, with a capped provision, very effectively, in relatively short order.

I believe that taking away the complexity of those pricing structures, with flat daily and weekly fares that are fully integrated and affordable across bus, rail and subway, would better support my constituents across Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn. It would also support me, as I depend on buses and trains. It would also make sense for my constituents who do not currently use public transport to do so; they could switch on that basis.

I am aware that the bus network operators in Glasgow would cite the extensive nature—my constituents may agree—of the urban rail network as one of the reasons why they find it challenging to run what they would consider to be commercially viable services. In my constituency, we have particular issues later in the evenings and at weekends. Drawing in ScotRail, with better integration of bus and rail services within the urban Glasgow areas, would, therefore, make perfect sense.

In returning home this evening, I could, depending on when I arrive back at Queen Street station, have up to an hour to wait for a train on the Maryhill line to get my connection back to Summerston. I could jump on the subway or train to Partick and get a bus to Maryhill—perhaps the 8 or the 90, if it ran a more extensive service. Indeed, I could get the train to Anniesland, as there are many train services to Anniesland apart from those on the Maryhill line, if a bus service existed that connected Anniesland back through the north of Glasgow across to Maryhill. I know that my constituents in Kelvindale and Ruchill, for example, would very much appreciate that.

I absolutely accept, however, that that all costs money. We need a robust business plan with the aim of growing paying passenger numbers on buses and on trains. We need greater frequency of buses, in particular at peak times. I was struck by Gordon MacDonald’s comments that buses have to be clean, safe and welcoming environments. They also have to be family friendly. There have been many times when I have stood outside the large Tesco in Maryhill with my two-year-old girl in a buggy, hoping that no one else with a pram turns up, because we would then have to race each other to get on the bus. We have to decide what a bus network should look like in five, 10 or 15 years’ time in order to be truly family friendly.

Alex Rowley

I find what Bob Doris says really interesting. Operators have said to me that we need to give buses more space on the roads, with much more provision such as dedicated bus lanes. They also tell me that, in Glasgow specifically, the road works and traffic congestion puts people off getting the bus.

Bob Doris

I agree with that, but I offer a slight note of caution, because such provision sometimes means fewer bus stops, which means a poorer service for constituents, in particular those with mobility issues. Sometimes a bus lane can pass by whole stretches of commercial retail units and drop people off at the large supermarket—that is where my bus stop is—so that they do not use the small local retailers. I say yes to Mr Rowley, therefore, but with a note of caution.

I was also interested to hear that the role of hospitality was included in the fair fares review. Of course, that sector needs our support as it is a key partner. I am thinking about Glasgow as an event city. The maximum capacity of the Ovo Hydro in Glasgow is 14,300 people; for a football game at Hampden park it is 51,866; at Celtic park it is more than 60,000; and at Ibrox it is more than 50,000. At Celtic Connections, 115,000 people buy tickets every year for 300 performances. I do not want to add to the cost of people’s night out or day out, but if we are truly serious about Glasgow having a world-class, connected public transport system, we should consider what a pound on a ticket could deliver for Glasgow’s public transport system. It could have a phenomenal impact on providing better support for the people who cannot afford to take taxis to go to those events and do not have cars to get to them. It could be a more equitable way of dealing with Glasgow’s public transport solutions.

Finally, on the frequency of services, I want to see franchising and greater public control, but I am also not opposed to a bit of corporate sponsorship. What about free bus Fridays, sponsored by Diageo or Irn-Bru? We have large corporations in Scotland. Why are we not drawing them in to invest in our public transport system through corporate sponsorship? We did say that it was an open debate, so that is one more idea.


Richard Leonard (Central Scotland) (Lab)

I remind members of my trade union affiliations that are in my voluntary register of interests.

The cabinet secretary does not have her problems to seek: 150 job cuts at Network Rail over the past six months; just last week, the announcement of more than 40 more redundancies at Babcock Rail in Lanarkshire; a clear breach of the 2016 collective agreement between ScotRail and the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers on driver-only operations; fermenting growing industrial unrest; and still no definitive ruling on railway station ticket hours, with cuts to services, cuts to jobs and downgrades not ruled out. And yet, we are told in the report before us today that the Government’s vision in the national transport strategy is of

“a sustainable, inclusive, safe and accessible transport system”

when we know that each of these cuts and each of these backward steps reduce inclusivity, put at risk passenger safety, narrow accessibility, and so set back sustainability.

In a section in the report under the heading “Rationale for Intervention”, we are told that

“both ScotRail Trains Limited and Caledonian Sleeper Ltd”


“now under public ownership and controlled by ... Ministers”

—“controlled by ... Ministers”.

That is why I call for the cabinet secretary to exercise that control; to intervene; to stop these safety-critical job cuts; to keep these skills in the network; to ensure that ScotRail abides by the 2016 collective agreement on electrification; and to once and for all call off these ticket office cuts and closures.

Fiona Hyslop

I appreciate Richard Leonard taking a considered and constructive approach and tone, as was intended by our having a debate without a motion. He raises serious points, but I also want to raise a point about control. He started his contribution by talking about Network Rail. Does he understand that Network Rail is reserved to the UK Government? If we are looking at the future for Great Britain rail and if he wants us to have the collaboration and co-operation that Scotland currently has between ScotRail and Network Rail, we need powers in this Parliament, not with the UK Government, which takes decisions over which we do not have control. Does he want the powers over Network Rail to be brought back to this Parliament?

Richard Leonard

That is a point of view that I would expect a nationalist to express. We share this island with a rail network. The minister is now in control of the Caledonian sleeper service, which is cross-border.

I get that there is a ScotRail Alliance that brings together Network Rail in Scotland and ScotRail as the operating company, which is now part of the public sector.

I will say a little more about the cabinet secretary’s views on devolution in a second, but I would ask her and other MSPs to look at the report that we are considering today. It is all there on page 24, where it says:

“Rail fares are extremely complex with a range of products (sometimes as many as ten fare types for one journey depending on where and when the journey is being made).”

It continues:

“Passenger research has shown that confusion over buying the right ticket type is acting as a barrier to encouraging modal shift from car to rail.”

So, if ever there was a case for simplifying the ticket system and not reintroducing peak-time fares, if ever there was a case for integrated ticketing—which we have been promised since 2012 but which we have once again been told this afternoon to wait again for while the Government considers options—if ever there was a case for extending booking office hours, not contracting them, this is it.

I also have to ask the cabinet secretary to reflect on her ministerial foreword to the report, where she writes of the “constraints of devolution”, but, in the very next paragraph, we are reminded that, under the constraints of devolution,

“ScotRail and the Caledonian sleeper are now under public ownership.”

The Clyde and Hebrides ferry routes are in public ownership and there is no reason, under the so-called constraints of devolution, why other ferry services could not be in public ownership or why our bus services could not be under public municipal ownership, either.

Incidentally, as we are debating fares policy this afternoon, compare the fare policy of Lothian Buses in the east with those of bus operators in Greater Glasgow in the west, where private operators such as First Bus charge over 40 per cent more for a standard adult ticket than municipally owned Lothian transport.

The cabinet secretary needs to reflect, too, that in the paragraph that follows that one she writes:

“we provided over £1 billion of additional financial support to ensure our public transport services were protected ... throughout the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic”,

when she knows full well that those were largely Barnett consequentials and that those levels of additional spending resulted not from the constraints of devolution but as one of the benefits of devolution.

The Climate Change Committee warned last week that Scotland’s climate change goals for 2030 are no longer credible. It said that the fair fares review needed a plan to

“make public transport ... more attractive, increasing its frequency, reliability and cost-competitiveness against car travel.”

Next Monday is two years to the day since ScotRail entered public ownership. It is also the day that ScotRail fares will rise by 8.7 per cent. If the Scottish Government does not make the no-peak-fare scheme permanent, many passengers face the return of massively increased rail fares from June, and that would only serve to discourage passengers from using rail and push many more of them into cars.

For me, it is clear and becoming clearer by the day that we cannot resolve the climate crisis by sticking to the existing order. We have to transcend the old horizons. We need to leave behind the profit motive and the shareholder dividend in our public services. We have to put forward the case for change, because massive corporations have too much power over the fate of our communities and our planet. This is not a time to be backward—it is a time to go forward and a time to be bold.


Kevin Stewart (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)

Before looking to the future of public transport in Scotland, we must recognise where we are and how we got here. Scotland does not have a publicly owned public transport system; we had one until the Tories at Westminster and the Labour Party in regional councils across Scotland conspired to privatise our buses, and then the Tories did exactly the same with our railways.

The Scottish Government has taken the bold step of returning ScotRail and the Caledonian sleeper to public ownership.

Alex Rowley

I am confused, because I remember that, in Fife, the regional council was certainly opposed to the buses being privatised. I am confused by what Kevin Stewart has said, because that certainly did not happen in Fife.

Kevin Stewart

I am not au fait with every aspect, but I know that Labour-controlled regional councils did not do enough to stop that privatisation. I will come to Lothian in a second, because it got it right.

As I was saying, it is great that the Scottish Government has brought ScotRail and the Caledonian sleeper back into public ownership, although private services still run on our tracks. In my opinion, the nationalisation has been a great success, and it shows a route forward.

Will the member take an intervention?

Kevin Stewart

I will take it in a little while.

Buses are a different matter. Most bus routes in Scotland are run by private companies, with subsidies from Government and local councils. Lothian Buses in Edinburgh is, of course, the notable exception and has remained in public hands. Everyone here who uses Lothian Buses on a regular basis knows that it is a fine example of what can be achieved when public transport is in public hands. I wish that the same had happened in Grampian as happened here in Lothian.

Although I firmly support all of our public transport being in public hands, we must accept the fiscal position that we, in Scotland, find ourselves in. The UK Government’s on-going cuts to public services and infrastructure mean that billions have been cut from Scotland’s block grant. While the Tory Government continues its death spiral of slashing public spending and cutting taxes for the wealthy, and the Labour Party promises five more years of the same, we must work with what we have, or we must seek the path to independence.

The fair fares review offers a set of recommendations and actions to achieve the best for Scotland’s public transport in these difficult times. Scotland’s public transport is—and will be—key to economic development, and a core future aim must be to provide an affordable and reliable public transport service that unlocks economic growth by connecting workers with jobs on time and for a reasonable fare.

Alongside that, our public transport needs to facilitate customers getting into our town centres to access retail, leisure and recreational opportunities. Marrying up the needs of our town centres with the needs of business and customers will be key to stopping the decline in our town centres, which is caused by online shopping and working from home.

Fiona Hyslop

The changing experience of customers is really important. Looking at the growth in weekend public transport use is important, because it lends itself to that event and leisure experience. In Glasgow, there was a strong campaign—with the city and the hospitality sector, across different modes—to encourage people not to come in by car for their Christmas events but to travel by public transport.

Does Mr Stewart agree that looking at the changing nature and use of public transport will be important not only in planning—yes, by operators—but in incentivising and in looking at the ticketing offers that we want to develop?

Kevin Stewart

I agree completely and utterly with the cabinet secretary. One thing that has happened in Aberdeen of late was some controversy about a bus gate on Market Street, which has actually helped the flow of public transport. Recognising the controversy and trying to get more folk on to buses, both First Bus and Stagecoach in Aberdeen waived fares at the weekend to encourage more folk on to public transport, with some success.

Public transport is key to achieving our aims. To start, we need to build on the exceptional success of the free bus passes, which are the most generous schemes of their kind in these islands, with just under half the Scottish population already being able to access free bus travel.

While reducing inequality by maintaining the free bus pass for young folk, older people and disabled people, we need to ensure that public transport is the default option for all. A core part of that will be a single easy-to-understand fare for going from A to B, and an integrated ticketing system and zonal fares will be important in achieving that.

For longer journeys, our railways will be the backbone to underpinning our success. Again, integrated ticketing and fares will be key to encouraging greater use of rail for all types of journeys and ensuring that, when anyone in Scotland decides to make a longer trip, getting the train is their first thought. The abolition of peak fares pilot has done much to get people back on our railways, and I hope that the analysis that the Government will undertake will show that it should be kept.

Part of the success of our railways has been the reopening of stations that used to serve communities. In Scotland, we can be proud of our recent success in reopening railway stations, such as the one at Kintore, with Levenmouth to come shortly. I am supportive of the Campaign For North East Rail, which aims to reconnect Fraserburgh and Peterhead to Aberdeen by rail. Of course, there are also advantages in opening railways through the increased opportunities for freight, but that is probably a matter for a different debate.

Let us make public transport our go-to option by building a system that is fit not only for today but for tomorrow.

I say to colleagues that we have probably eaten up quite a lot of the time that we had in hand.


Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I thank the cabinet secretary for having a debate without a motion. For some members, it has changed the tone; others, unfortunately, are back to their default tone. The launch of the fair fares review has been important, because it now allows a wider conversation to begin. It has been a priority of SNP ministers and Scottish Greens to see the fair fares review to completion.

Last week’s UK Climate Change Committee report was, of course, a wake-up call for us all. Road transport accounts for almost a quarter of Scotland’s carbon emissions, and it is a key area in which we need to make lasting systemic change. We urgently need to shift folks from cars to public transport, but people vote with their feet, and they will make that shift only if the public transport offer is accessible, affordable and reliable.

We absolutely need cheaper fares, and integrated ticketing is key to that. We already have one of the widest concessionary schemes on bus, enabling 2.5 million people to travel for free. Free bus travel is an absolute lifeline for people who face inequality. I welcome the recommitment to expand the scheme on bus for people who are seeking asylum and for people who are suffering from drug dependency. I also welcome the new pilot project to extend free travel on ScotRail for companions of people who hold a blind person’s concessionary travel card. I look forward to updates on all that work when possible.

Of course, there is much more that we can do beyond the concessionary schemes to ensure that public transport is affordable for all. I warmly welcome the flat-fare trial. Councils that span both rural and urban areas and are working hard to restore bus services with communities will be well placed to trial a flat fare as part of a package to reboot local bus services. The off-peak-all-day pilot on ScotRail will also give us evidence of how simplifying fares on the railways has worked in relation to both farebox income and passenger numbers.

The next step is to join up our fragmented public transport network. I am pleased to see a commitment to a national integrated ticketing system and an all-age national travel card and fare structure. It is so obvious that having a card or an app that joins everything up makes sense. Shetland manages to do it, and Glasgow offered it during the 26th United Nations climate change conference of the parties—COP26—so, in time, we can surely get that approach rolled out everywhere else.

Having mentioned Shetland, I welcome the commitment to extend not just the national concessionary ferry scheme to under-22s, but to move beyond that commitment and offer free fares for under-22s on interisland ferries. That will be liberating for young people who live in our islands. I also note that the road equivalent tariff will continue, but I welcome the intention to strike a better balance that supports island residents first and foremost in the design of that scheme.

Many members have reflected on the need to fix the broken models that have left communities without decent bus services. For too long, rural bus routes have been vulnerable to the boom and bust cycle of deregulation and privatisation. In the past month alone, we have seen lifeline routes such as the C60 between Killin and Callander, which I mentioned earlier, and the X7 in the Carse of Gowrie axed. Our communities deserve better. With SPT recently deciding to push forward with franchising, the future is looking brighter. Public and community ownership can bring genuine benefits to bus services, whether in Glasgow or rural Perthshire, and now is the time to start accelerating progress.

Undoubtedly, we need radical improvements to public transport. If we are serious about making that a reality, we need to redirect some of the capital away from carbon-intensive roads and into the infrastructure that we need for sustainable transport. Instead of doubling down on new road-building projects, we need to invest in the infrastructure that will supercharge our public transport across Scotland.

Demand-management measures and road-user charging models could be used to fund public transport improvements while they also reduce our transport emissions. I ask members to imagine what the impact of the congestion charge would have been in Edinburgh had it been brought in 20 years ago after that debate, and what kind of investment we would have been able to achieve in our public transport infrastructure in the city.

Will the member give way?

If there is time in hand, I would like to.

There is a little time in hand.

Does the member accept that the bus partnership fund and putting in place bus lanes have been crucial, and that getting buses moving fast is just as important as fares?

Mark Ruskell

Absolutely. Bus lanes are a critical example of the infrastructure that we need. Mr Rowley will recognise that, this year, the Scottish Government is under incredible pressure with its capital budgets, but that is exactly the kind of infrastructure that we need. We need more investment in Edinburgh, and if we had started that congestion charge 20 years ago, perhaps we would have been able to see much more of that investment.

It is good to see it said in the fair fares review that

“the cost of motoring relative to public transport needs to be addressed.”

Not many members have focused on that point in the debate, but work on that must continue at pace.

I am proud of what the Government has already achieved. There is free bus travel for all young people under the age of 22 across Scotland, with more than 100 million journeys to date. There is new funding and powers for local authorities to wrest back powers from private companies to franchise and run their own services, for people and not for profit. There is record investment in active travel infrastructure, transforming our towns and cities into safer and more accessible places to walk, wheel and cycle. Those measures all need to be celebrated, but of course we have to go further and faster. I hope that the fair fares review can be the springboard that we need to do just that. I look forward to working alongside the Cabinet Secretary for Transport to make that hope a reality.


Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I welcome the publication of the review. After it had been given as the answer to many portfolio questions, we now have the document. That is to be welcomed, but a degree of disappointment has already been expressed this afternoon.

For the past two decades, the cost of public transport in the UK has increased—not just relative to driving, but above inflation. Prior to the pandemic, increasing running costs and higher passenger fares had led to a fall in users, and the impact of that is still being seen. The “Fair Fares Review” report includes a recommendation to rebalance the cost of travel, in which it highlights the commitment to making sustainable travel “more attractive”. It states that, to achieve that,

“the cost of motoring relative to public transport needs to be addressed.”

We need to be careful here. Public transport costs have risen more quickly than the costs of driving have but, for many people, public transport is not an option.

We need to consider the realities of car usage if we want to make motoring cost prohibitive. Although we need fewer people to use private cars, and there are interventions that would make car use more expensive, the focus needs to be on making public transport more affordable and reducing the cost of travel. We know that some people choose to drive because it is a cheaper option and, in a cost of living crisis, we should be doing what we can to reduce household costs. The climate aims of reducing car use and encouraging modal shift have to be seen alongside the social aims of improving the accessibility and affordability of public transport options.

The Government’s commitment to the review made it clear that the landscape of declining car travel costs versus increasing public transport costs was exacerbating the impact on those living in poverty, who are often in low-car-ownership communities. The Levenmouth rail link has already been mentioned. One of the key drivers for the delivery of that rail link is that it is in an area with very low car ownership and high levels of poverty. I hope that the Levenmouth rail link will make a significant difference to that community.

Behind the review is the need for equality and making public transport systems affordable for all. Unfortunately, we are not seeing the progress towards reform that would result in that. I agree with Mark Ruskell that we need more pace and focus. For people who are on lower incomes, public services such as transport are vital to their daily lives and to accessing employment, education, healthcare and leisure activities. However, too often, rising costs and poor links put that at risk.

In a time of increasing financial pressures, delivering reliable and affordable public transport is a way in which the Government can support households and help to address the stubborn rates of poverty that continue in Scotland. Conversely, raising transport fares can put unacceptable strain on people who are already struggling to afford public transport.

When it comes to addressing rising costs, the Poverty Alliance welcomed the pilot on flat-fare ticketing, but it criticised the lack of urgent action and said that the new commitments were “limited”, particularly for those who are on low incomes. The alliance also highlighted that

“many of the areas ... raised by the Citizen’s Panel as a priority”

have been “omitted” or “not progressed” because of cost. It would be helpful to see some of the financial reasoning behind the decisions. I know that the cabinet secretary talked in her opening statement about the immediate financial pressures that we face, but we need to look for creative solutions.

For people who are on low incomes, cost is the key concern about public transport, and they need more action to improve access and affordability. The report indicates that, in the medium to long term, there will be consideration of support for “those experiencing financial poverty”, but we need that work to be prioritised.

On rail travel, the report highlights the complexity of rail fares and the lack of standardisation in terms of restrictions, available fare types and fares themselves. There is no standard pence per mile—or kilometre—measurement used, although the Scottish Government uses that measure when it compares ticket prices with those in the rest of the UK.

There is variation in the costs per mile for different journeys in Scotland. Many people in Fife who travel from Dunfermline, Burntisland or Markinch to Edinburgh pay more per mile than those who make journeys from Glasgow, Falkirk or Perth to Edinburgh.

The original basis for the regulated fare structure is opaque. ScotRail inherited the fares that were in place when British Rail was privatised in 1996. Since then, it has applied an annual increase formula, but no one seems to know how the fares were originally set. One of the medium to long-term recommendations in the report includes the development of

“proposals for a new fare offering ... to encourage”

an increase in rail market share. However, that must look at how the fares are set, as well as how they can change to reflect passengers’ different needs.

The removal of peak rail fares pilot, which has been a welcome step in reducing costs for passengers, has been under way for almost six months, and it is frustrating that we have not been provided with any detail about the on-going evaluation of how it is working. Anecdotally, we have seen that the pilot has been successful in getting more people on trains, but I am keen to find out whether that cohort is new or returning passengers and how the pilot has impacted people on lower incomes.

For commuters in Fife, there continue to be services for which capacity is not able to match demand, which is a problem that has been exacerbated by reduced numbers of carriages and by cancellations. As part of the pilot, the ScotRail website provides information on which services are busiest, so that passengers can try to avoid them. However, the list of busy services includes every service that goes through Fife to Edinburgh in the morning peak period—many services are full by the time that they reach Inverkeithing. There are passengers who have not been able to get on trains, and many more are regularly paying to stand. Such service issues, in addition to cancellations and delays, must be addressed to ensure that rail is an attractive travel option.

In closing, I will touch briefly on active travel. To get people on to public transport, we need to provide a reliable and affordable service. We also need to improve accessibility and linkages with active travel. If we are to encourage people to choose the bus or the train over the private car, they must be able to get to bus stops or train stations easily and safely.

The results of a survey by Sustrans that were published this week showed that the majority of people in urban areas support shifting investment from road building to funding active travel and public transport. The survey also found that people want to have the choice to walk, cycle and use public transport more. We need to make it easier for them to do that, which will help us to achieve the health, environmental and economic benefits that we all want to see.

John Mason will be the final speaker in the open debate.


John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I am pleased to take part in the debate, not least because I am enthusiastic about travelling and about public transport—especially our railways. However, I am happy to state that I have a car, too. When I go camping, there is no way that I can carry my tent and other equipment on the bus or the train, so I take the car.

I will start with one point on which I am in complete agreement with what the report says. The foreword says that we should

“support people to encourage that shift to use their car less and use public transport more”.

I accept that it can be a big step for someone to give up their car altogether but, if we all reduced our car usage and increased our use of public transport, that would make a big difference to road congestion, and it would also help to improve our health. As a bonus, on the train or the bus, there is more time for reading or working.

While listening to John Mason, I was thinking about car clubs. Does he think that they could be rolled out more to encourage people to give up their cars?

John Mason

I did not intend to mention that in my speech, but I am enthusiastic about car clubs. An Enterprise car club is based in my constituency. In Inverness, the Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership offers the Go-Hi app, which brings together the train, the bus, the taxi, walking and the car club. That is excellent.

It is clear that cost is a factor. Once we have a car and have paid for the insurance and the MOT, the extra cost of taking it to the shops, football or even Parliament is relatively low, because all that we have to pay for is the petrol and maybe the parking, whereas it can be expensive to take a family of four on the train, even with off-peak fares and special offers.

I suspect that we will never get the marginal cost of one trip on public transport down to the marginal cost of the same trip by car—unless the bus is free, which it is for those who have a bus pass. At this point, I must declare that I do.

That reminds us that we need to have not just a carrot but a stick approach. In Scotland, we largely have control over the carrots, but the stick of increasing the cost of using a car falls to Westminster. In its briefing, Transform Scotland makes the valid point that fuel duty rates have not risen enough in recent years, and we have not yet cracked the nut of how owners of electric cars are to pay their fair share of road costs if they are not to do so through fuel duty.

As the report points out, much of our public transport is not expensive compared with that in other parts of the UK. The ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway takes about two and three quarter hours, and a passenger return fare costs £22. The ferry from Penzance to Scilly takes a similar amount of time, and a passenger return fare costs £186.

When we are talking about fair fares, we have to ask, “Fair for whom?” They must certainly be fair for the passenger, but what about the taxpayer? Is it fair that a taxpayer with no train station nearby pays some £300 per year for our railway system? That is for each member of their family. As I said, I am enthusiastic about public transport, and I think that we should have higher taxes to support it, but we still need to be realistic about how much we can afford and where we draw the line.

Peak-time train fares are currently suspended and, like other members, I look forward to learning the results of the pilot scheme. I see some evidence of increased passenger numbers in the mornings, but I fear that income from fares will have suffered, and I wonder whether that is sustainable.

There are cost factors when it comes to buses. Strathclyde Partnership for Transport is proposing a franchise system, which would have an annual cost of some £45 million to £85 million. That equates to about £20 to £40 per head of population in Strathclyde each year, which is a lot less than in London, where the subsidy is £100 per resident per year.

Some have suggested that public ownership of buses is the answer, but that would still come at a cost, and I suspect that it would not satisfy everyone. When I was younger, the buses were run by the corporation, but there were still complaints that too many buses went to Castlemilk and not enough came to Rutherglen. That would happen again.

On the subject of Glasgow, we have an excellent train and bus service, but that depends on exactly where people live and where they want to go. There are 11 rail stations on two separate lines in my constituency, which is an area that is roughly 7 miles long by 3 miles wide. I have recently been attending Gartnavel hospital a bit. It has a tremendous rail service and is right at the door of Hyndland station, with trains to many stations from there, but the car park is still jammed full of vehicles, perhaps because some people either must or choose to use their car.

As the train service from somewhere such as Carmyle in my constituency has been electrified and improved, the bus service cannot compete on trips to the city centre and has therefore declined. However, not everyone wants to go to the city centre, and buses stop more frequently and closer to destinations such as local shops, the general practitioner, the dentist and schools, so there is no question but that we need both rail and bus in Glasgow.

Public transport is complex and I do not believe that there is one simple answer, but simplifying the system and making it easier to use would be a big step forward. Bob Doris explained a lot of the complicated systems in Strathclyde. To give another example, people can get concession tickets on the trains in Strathclyde, but they are not available from ticket machines or on the ScotRail app. That should be better integrated.

I have a constituent who is fanatical about split ticketing, which is the ability to split the journey when buying tickets, while the journey is actually on the same train. I told him that I was not going to raise that today, but I have decided that I will. For example, I looked at a return ticket from my station, Garrowhill, to Mallaig. The ScotRail app tells me that a day return on Monday would cost £50.15. However, if I used Trainline to split the ticket at Queen Street, that would cost £32.30 plus £2.60, which comes to £34.90. That journey costs 43 per cent more for those who do not know how to split their ticket.

Given that money is tight, we should target support towards those who are most in need. The report acknowledges that the existing systems are targeted towards specific groups that are based on age and health, rather than on low income. One obvious option might be to raise the age for the older persons national concessionary travel scheme from 60 to 66, to match the pension age, but I fear that that might not be popular. People who are aged 60 to 65 are good voters, so would any political party dare to upset them in that way?

We must be realistic about our finances and about which good things we can or cannot afford to do. This week, both the Finance and Public Administration Committee meeting and a breakfast briefing organised by the Scottish Parliament information centre were on the subject of the Scottish Fiscal Commission’s report “Fiscal Stability Perspectives: Climate Change”, which overlaps with the topic of this debate. We cannot afford to do all that we would like to do, so it is important that we choose the right priorities and spend our money where it will have the maximum impact.

We move to the winding-up speeches.


Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I welcome this debate without motion, which I think has made for higher-quality debate.

If we are being honest, there must be some acknowledgement that there has been long-term underinvestment in public transport in Scotland. We have only one underground system, which is in Glasgow and still shuts at 6 pm on Sundays, although I have been campaigning for an extension to that for 15 years. We have only one tram system.

We have had some notable expansions over the years, such as the creation of the Borders railway, which shows how popular rail has become, even though this Parliament agreed to the Borders rail line by just one vote. Use of the line shows the importance of rail to people in Scotland.

We do not need an expensive consultation programme to work out that the public want affordable fares. People want reliable services on buses and on trains. I think that we all agree that we must meet people’s aspirations.

When I saw the presentation from ScotRail at the time, it seemed to me that the pilot of removal of peak fares was the result of the coincidence of the pandemic and the return to public ownership having brought about a sensible policy decision. I wonder whether the cabinet secretary has seen the data on the pilot or is still waiting to see it. I ask because I think that we are all desperate to see whether revenue streams have remained the same, which would justify continuation of that scheme. Can we really go back to having working people, or people who want to come to this city, spending almost £30 a day to travel between Glasgow and Edinburgh? I really do not want us to go back to that.

Electrification of the railways is important for zero carbon, but it has not changed the service for many communities. Where I live, people cannot get a train on Sunday before 11.15 am. We have not discussed Sunday services, but it is an important issue. I have raised it with ScotRail and the RMT, of which I declare that I am a member. Rail is a critical public service and it is critical to net zero. It is a difficult issue, but it has to be addressed. There has to be a seven-days service—Sundays cannot be excluded.

The public like rail. It is accountable, mostly—and more so, now. It is timetabled, and it is quicker, in most cases.

I support guards being kept on ScotRail services, which Richard Leonard spoke about.

In 2019, I proposed a member’s bill on young people’s concessionary fares, because I felt that it was unfair that the fares that they pay automatically double when they turn 16. My bill was blocked at the last minute because the Parliament did not have the relevant powers, but it has them now. I would like to put that on the table. I am not arguing that the answer is to expand concessionary fares and have lots of them, but that group of people is worth our consideration.

Everyone has talked about integrated ticketing; I am really unclear about what is preventing it from happening. Do we need to buy some technology that we do not have? Is it a governance issue? We all agree that we are 20 years behind where we ought to be on that.

Fiona Hyslop

Having spoken to the chair of the national smart ticketing advisory board this week, I note that we are ahead on many aspects, but we are behind on, for example, barcodes, which are important for interoperability. We have regional integrated ticketing, but we need to get multimodal and national ticketing, which is exactly the work that the board has been tasked with. It is about procurement of a common standard that everybody can use.

Pauline McNeill

That is really helpful. Thank you.

Scottish Labour has pushed for and supports the SPT consultation on bus franchising. It is not a done deal, and we know that; it is only the start of a journey. Working with the 12 local authorities that are involved, we need to tackle the governance issues. That is not the answer in itself, though: we need a revolution in the service. Gordon MacDonald spoke about that to some degree. The service has to be accountable in the way that the train service is accountable. When a bus does not turn up, people need to know why it did not turn up and that it will turn up next time. We have not cracked that, at all. The public want to know that there is a frequent service and that, if they miss a bus, another one will be coming along.

It strikes me that hospital services are a priority area. We have legislated on the matter, but it is clear to me that, in any franchising, hospital services should be a high priority. I do not see why we could not offer that.

Although I agree with a lot of what John Mason said, I do not believe that the stick is the answer. The answer is that buses must not be seen as a last resort; they must be seen as a choice. People need to be able to choose the bus because it suits their lifestyle. We can do a lot more to encourage people.

I want to say a bit about the Clyde metro project, which I have been pursuing for some time. It is the big transport ambition for the Glasgow city region. I have asked various questions and had various meetings about it, but it is clear to me that there is no financial commitment to the project. I do not know what type of project it is.

I am really concerned that the money that was allocated for the rail link to Glasgow airport has been reallocated and we are now the only city of our size in the whole of Europe that does not have such a rail link. A link that serves west central Scotland would give passengers a choice to use light rail to the airport. I do not think that it is sustainable for Glasgow to be left behind in that way.

We need to recognise the diversity of needs across Scotland. Claire Baker spoke about that. There are shift workers and hospitality workers who work after 12 pm or 1 in the morning who need reliable services. Some of them have to drive because they do not have such a service. The cross-party campaign in Glasgow helped to retain the night bus service.

We have a shortage of bus drivers. That issue has not been mentioned, but we need to address it.

You must conclude, Ms McNeill.

Pauline McNeill

In closing, I want to respond to Bob Doris—the pedestrian. Taxi services should be regarded as part of the public transport system. How many people have come off a train only to see their bus leaving the station when they need to be somewhere? People need to be able to rely on the bus and to have the choice of using a taxi, if they can afford it.

There is a lot that we agree on. We need the technology, we need ease of access to public transport, we need mixed modes of transport and we need to give people choices. If we make the right decisions, people will make those choices.


Douglas Lumsden (North East Scotland) (Con)

I welcome the debate, which gives us an opportunity to discuss a key area of public policy in Scotland. I even promise to keep my contribution positive—for the most part.

Public transport is a matter of concern for many of our communities throughout Scotland. The challenges are many, and rising costs in all areas of transport cause significant challenges for national and local government.

There is also a stark divide between rural and urban transport networks in terms of their needs, focus, challenges and delivery. Many people would argue that we need not one but two reviews—one for urban transport and one for rural transport. That is borne out by the lack of mention in the review document of rural communities, or of the difference between rural and urban networks. There are only two mentions of the word “rural” in the whole document. The first is in relation to the excellent example of a demand-responsive bus network in Moray. The second is in a small bullet point on page 23, which simply says that there should be

“a sustainable and available network of buses across the country,”


“in rural ... areas”.

However, there is no indication of how that should be achieved, nor of the particular challenges in our rural communities. I therefore welcome the cabinet secretary’s mention of rural issues in her opening remarks.

Does Douglas Lumsden agree that it would make sense to roll out the flat-fares pilot in a rural area, as well as learning from the experience in Edinburgh?

Douglas Lumsden

I was just about to cover that point.

We welcome parts of the long-awaited review—which has taken three years, as Alex Rowley mentioned. We welcome the extension of the trial scrapping of peak rail fares. We welcome development of the proposal for a flat-fares pilot for buses, and we suggest to the Scottish Government that there should be at least two pilots—one rural and one urban—so that we can get a sense of viability and the impacts on bus usage in both settings.

The report also states:

“a number of local authorities have withdrawn their local concessionary travel schemes in recent years due to affordability concerns, further exacerbating geographical anomalies in access to schemes across Scotland.”

There should not be a postcode lottery, so I welcome the Government’s commitment to ensuring that schemes are Scotland-wide. However, schemes should take full account of rural communities and local travel patterns and must work hand in hand with local councils and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Colleagues from across the chamber have made interesting contributions. The cabinet secretary mentioned help for people who are in most need, but most of the options in the report that are not being progressed might have done that. That is slightly disappointing.

Graham Simpson mentioned a desire for a 20 per cent reduction in car journeys. Making public transport more affordable is the only way to do that. It seems that there are a lot of pilots in the review, but there is nothing concrete. I will speak about technology later.

Alex Rowley, too, is disappointed by the review and the lack of actions. He spoke about five-year and 10-year planning. I agree with that. The resources that would make radical changes overnight are not available, but we, as a Parliament, should be able to provide the direction of travel that is needed.

Gordon MacDonald told us that he used to work for Lothian Buses. From his contribution today, I thought that he still did; it was a glowing report for the company. Sue Webber described the easy-to-understand fares structure on Lothian Buses. That is key. I often take the bus in Aberdeen, but I have no idea how much it costs me until I see my bank statement. Sue also took the opportunity to call again for a new railway station at Winchburgh.

Bob Doris described the host of tickets that can be purchased. Surely we can make things easier for people by doing something about that. He also called for better integration between trains and buses. That seems to be just common sense.

Richard Leonard mentioned complex train ticketing. I agree with what he said. It is often cheaper to buy a return ticket, even when the return leg will not be used, than it is to buy a single ticket. A lot of people do not realise that. In addition, as John Mason mentioned, split tickets are often cheaper. That does not seem to be right.

Richard Leonard also mentioned the sleeper service, which does not appear much in the report. If we are looking at making fares cheaper, maybe there should be more in it about the sleeper service.

I have a confession to make: I am a regular bus user. The biggest improvement that has got me on the bus has been increased use of technology—contactless payments and apps in which I can see live bus-times information. I no longer need to download a timetable or get to a bus stop and guess when the next bus is coming. Seeing on my phone where the bus is has really changed my habits.

However, we can still do more in terms of technology. Working out how much a journey will cost still seems to be a lottery; an app should tell us the cost when we plan a journey. There is also a need for better joined-up fares between different modes of transport. We have heard that point from a lot of members today. The Government has a role to play in that, so it was good to hear the cabinet secretary mention it. We can all agree that we need a much more joined-up public transport system, with a fairer system of fares.

I remain concerned that the review does not take enough account of rural issues. I hope that the Government will acknowledge that there is a gap in the report, and work to remedy that.

We all agree that we need to get more people using public transport. For that to happen, we need to get the basics right. All modes of transport need to be clean, safe, affordable and fast.


Fiona Hyslop

I thank members from across the chamber for their thoughtful and constructive contributions to a debate on a subject that is truly fundamental to the everyday lives of people across the country. We have benefited from that more open debate.

As we have heard, the public transport system faces a number of challenges at this time. It has to recover passenger numbers in the wake of the pandemic and manage rising costs in the face of inflation and significant financial constraints that affect Government funders. Those funders make up the shortfall between the full costs of providing services and the revenue that is raised by fares in order to deliver reliable, affordable, accessible and available public transport—which, as we have heard, is the first choice for travel.

We rightly demand and expect a lot of our public transport system, because it is integral to getting us to where we want to get to and enabling our communities to thrive. I firmly see public transport as key to tackling poverty and unlocking opportunities that connect people to better-paid jobs and education. I also acknowledge that, in rural areas, public transport could have one of the biggest impacts on tackling rural poverty. As we heard, the future of public transport and our public transport system is also key to delivering our net zero ambitions by giving people a sustainable alternative to the private car for everyday journeys.

I will be frank: current financial constraints are hampering immediate, more radical and bold initiatives, but I really want to work with MSPs across the chamber to shape the public system that we all want and that the country needs. If we take those steps now, as we have heard from Alex Rowley, we can deliver something that is more fundamental in that approach.

I want to address as many of the contributions that we heard as I can.

Graham Simpson asked to be involved in the costings for the flat-fare pilot. I would be interested in talking to him about that. He raised a reasonable point about community transport, but it requires legislation in relation to section 19. Although that can be tackled, I would not see that as happening immediately, because of other legislative constraints. The budget bill for what he asked for would run into hundreds of millions of pounds, which is not immediately available. However, that does not mean that we cannot think about what we want and plan now for what we need.

In a very considered speech, Alex Rowley touched on the key issue of governance and governance structures; indeed, one of the recommendations is a review of governance structures. That started pre-pandemic, but we need to think seriously about what that means. Does it mean more devolution of powers to regional transport partnerships? How would councils feel about that? There are varying types of relationships—dare I say?—between councils and regional transport partnerships. Is that a solution? Let us have those discussions and look at those issues as part of the review.

Beatrice Wishart was perhaps a bit grudging in her support for what we are doing on the under-22s interisland issue. We just have to work out the mechanics of when and how we do that. When I sat on the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, we certainly heard that strong call from young people and others. Beatrice Wishart has constantly raised with me the issues about NorthLink and shared cabins, but she knows that it is always a complex matter that is centred on the appropriateness of sharing with strangers and the risk elements relating to that.

Gordon MacDonald gave an informed and expert analysis of not only the positive aspects of Lothian Buses but some of its challenges. He was quite right to say that we also need investment in vehicles, infrastructure and, as other members also mentioned, technology. He said that on such issues we want to work with private bus operators, but their challenge is whether they will share the data that we would need to arrive at the national ticketing solutions that we might want to see.

Sue Webber spoke about the need for regional integrated ticketing, which I think all members touched on. I hope that I have explained that we are probably further on that journey than people realise. We do not have the simplification and intermodal connectivity that we all need, but we have experts working with us on those through the national smart ticketing advisory board.

Bob Doris put in a pitch for Glasgow to be a candidate for the fixed-price, fixed-fare pilot. He said—and he is quite right—that Glasgow’s system is almost fully integrated but that there is more to be done. He made a point about charging a pound on fares around events. He might find that the culture sector will want first dibs on that idea, but he made an important point about getting people to events. However, those mostly happen in the evenings and at weekends. That links to Pauline McNeill’s point about Sunday and weekend services more generally. Bob Doris’s point about family-friendly spaces was an important one. The free-fare Friday challenge is out there, and I am sure that it has been heard.

Kevin Stewart was right to remind us about the fiscal pressures that we face. If UK public spending continues to be at the level that it is, regardless of which party is in government, that will constrain what we might be able to do through consequentials in the future, which should be acknowledged. Mr Stewart also referenced Aberdeen. Aberdeenshire is a very good example of what can be done on bus travel. It has seen reductions of 25 per cent in journey times since the introduction of its bus lanes. Members received a briefing from First, which mentioned that it is waiving fares from points at the beginning of the bus lanes at weekends, and it has just announced that it is freezing fares. We need to look at commercial models that can work.

Mark Ruskell put in a bid for a rural and city analysis on the fixed-price, flat-fare pilot. We need to think about how we can get the best information that will help us to shape future issues.

Claire Baker made a fundamental point on how we should tackle poverty. That might also mean how we target our resources. Even with the removal of peak fares, many people cannot afford the train ticket prices that apply just now. Should subsidy be put there, or should it, for example, be put in the bus fare sector?

Many options are not being taken forward that would help in the example situation that the cabinet secretary mentioned. Why are they not being considered and costed?

Fiona Hyslop

Some of them concern financial arrangements and will require legislation, which means that we will not necessarily be able to do them immediately. There is a prioritisation issue. There is also an element of challenge. As I said, we are one of the few countries that have such a generous concessionary travel scheme—it is free—and we are maintaining it. However, if we load more on to that system, we will not necessarily be in a position to grow income from fare paying if we spend all our money on subsidising that concessionary travel. Therefore we have to grow income to help the situation, which is where the flat-fare system might have an opportunity to give us direction.

Pauline McNeill and John Mason spoke about having a simplified system, but they also referenced the importance of travel to healthcare. I assure members that I recently met the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care, because, as Cabinet Secretary for Transport, I want to pursue the matter further.

There is more to be said on the issue. As constituency MSPs, we all know about the importance of public transport and that, when it does not work, complaints will come to us. However, we also have a responsibility to make it important in this Parliament—not in a one-off debate but continually. We all have a stake in the issue, and we all want to adapt to the challenges and changes that we see. That is why the Scottish Government is taking action now to ensure a sustainable and viable public transport system, by making considerable investment in a system that is better integrated, more accessible and available, and affordable for all.

I look forward to working with members across the chamber, stakeholders and delivery partners across the sector to realise that vision. I thank members for their contributions to the debate. I hope—and trust—that this conversation will continue.