Skip to main content

Language: English / Gàidhlig

Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament [Draft]

Meeting date: Thursday, March 7, 2024


Portfolio Question Time


The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

Good afternoon. The first item of business is portfolio questions, and the portfolio on this occasion is transport. I invite members who wish to ask a supplementary question to press their request-to-speak buttons during the relevant question. There is quite a bit of interest, so brevity in questions and responses, as far as possible, would be appreciated.

Rail Services (Safety and Accessibility)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking, including through discussion with the United Kingdom Government, to ensure that rail services are safe and accessible for all. (S6O-03166)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

Although rail safety and accessibility are reserved to the United Kingdom Government, the Scottish Government has fully funded the Office of Rail and Road’s independent determination of Network Rail’s costs to deliver a safe and high-performing network.

Officials at Transport Scotland meet regularly with representatives from the Department for Transport and Network Rail to discuss various matters, including safety and accessibility. Only last week, I met the chair of the Network Rail board and the chair of the Office of Rail and Road board to discuss how the Scottish ministers’ requirements will be delivered by Network Rail.

Ruth Maguire

Anyone who regularly uses the railway will have witnessed the benefit of having a safety-critical guard on the train. I personally received invaluable assistance recently in supporting a young female passenger who was being harassed by an older male.

I know that the Scottish Government is committed to ensuring that public transport is safe and accessible for all and is mindful in particular of the challenges that are faced by women and girls who are travelling alone. Will the cabinet secretary use her influence to implore publicly owned ScotRail to show that it is, too, and to keep the guard on ScotRail services?

Fiona Hyslop

While staffing is generally a matter for ScotRail as the employer, the Scottish Government continues to specify a requirement that all ScotRail services should have a second staff member on board to assist passengers. In addition, Transport Scotland is taking forward with stakeholders the 10 recommendations from the work on women and girls’ safety on public transport.

I can also relay that ScotRail’s travel safe team is successful in its operation, and is doing joint patrols with British Transport Police where there are areas of antisocial behaviour that can cause difficulties.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

The ScotRail high-speed trains reportedly contributed to the tragic outcomes at Carmont, as they are less safe than trains that meet modern standards. The Cabinet Secretary for Transport and her predecessors have consistently refused to give me a date for replacement. Many suggest that that is due to the cost of the break clause in the contract with the rolling stock company.

Could the cabinet secretary confirm whether financial considerations play any part at all in the refusal to replace those HSTs?

Fiona Hyslop

I say very politely to Liam Kerr that he raised a similar point recently, and he was wrong and misrepresented the findings of the Carmont board in relation to those trains. What I can say, though, on the aspects of replacement is that that is an active consideration. We are engaging in replacement, and we will inform Parliament at the due point.

In relation to the member’s point, therefore, it is not about cost; it is a recognition that we need to replace those trains in line with other aspects, including—as he knows—the decarbonisation of the line at Aberdeen South. I would implore him—I have written to him; I am not sure whether he has received the letter correcting him in his misunderstanding—to consider that it is really wrong to misrepresent the Carmont safety board and its recommendations.

M77 Bus Lane Corridor

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will revisit the feasibility of a bus lane corridor on the northbound M77 into Glasgow. (S6O-03167)

The Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity (Jim Fairlie)

The second strategic transport projects review, which was published in 2022, recommends that

“bus priority interventions are implemented within Scotland’s cities and towns where congestion is highest”.

That recommendation seeks to implement schemes that are targeted at delivering faster and more reliable journey times for bus passengers.

STPR2 also states:

“In the case of the trunk road and motorway network, Transport Scotland”


“build on the current work progressing plans for”

bus priority on

“the M8, M77 and M80”.

That work remains under development, in particular considering the changes in travel patterns following Covid and wider policy priorities.

Willie Coffey

With the news confirmed yesterday that more than £1 billion has been cut from our capital budget by the UK Government, and with no prospect of that being reinstated by any future UK Government, how can we in Scotland make progress with such projects, including park-and-ride facilities, that would help to encourage more commuters out of their cars and on to the excellent bus services that we offer?

Jim Fairlie

This Government is committed to improving public transport to encourage a modal shift to it, which would result in a reduction of car-based trips and associated emissions. Bus priority measures at appropriate locations have the potential to deliver greater punctuality, to reduce journey times and to offer a competitive alternative to the private car, particularly where the measures include interchange with other public transport services and active travel. The second strategic transport projects review also recommends a framework for the delivery of mobility hubs to enhance transport interchanges and accessibility services.

Brian Whittle (South Scotland) (Con)

The minister quite rightly highlights that pinch points for traffic going in and out of a city need to be considered when planning for successful bus lane usage. Does he also recognise that, along the A77, there are pinch points, such as at the Bellfield interchange, through which 41 per cent of traffic in and out of North Ayrshire travels? I am sure that my colleague Sharon Dowey could mention also the Dutch House roundabout and other roundabouts along that route. If we do not get them right, unfortunately, a bus lane will not be practical.

As I said, Transport Scotland is looking at areas right across the country. Once that review is complete, we will have better answers on that.


To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on how it plans to support local authorities to address the issue of potholes in the road network. (S6O-03168)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

I appreciate the road maintenance challenges across Scotland and the importance of a safe, well-performing road network. However, local road maintenance is the responsibility of local authorities, which allocate resources on the basis of local priorities. The 2024-25 local government settlement provides record funding of more than £14 billion to local authorities, including £144 million of funding for the council tax freeze, which represents an increase of £795.7 million. Ultimately, it is for locally elected representatives to make local decisions on how best to deliver services to their local communities.

Russell Findlay

Roads in my West Scotland region are in a dangerous state of disrepair, just as they are across Scotland. One in four constituents who replied to my annual report say that potholes and poor road conditions are their main concern, with one Paisley resident telling me that cratered local roads are

“like the surface of the moon”.

The Scottish National Party has slashed council budgets year after year. Surely the cabinet secretary can admit that her Government must fill the councils’ funding gap so that they can fill the potholes.

Fiona Hyslop

The member says that all on the day after the autumn statement that provided no capital support for the Scottish Government. [Interruption.]

I am not going to diminish people’s experience of roads—as MSPs, we all understand what that is. However, the member could refer to the Scottish local government finance statistics for 2022-23. They show that the net revenue expenditure by local authorities on roads maintenance increased by 12.2 per cent, from £143 million in 2021-22 to £161 million in 2022-23—an increase of £18 million. There is an issue with how local authorities spend their funding, but those statistics show that, despite difficult circumstances, local authorities spent significantly more on roads maintenance in that year than in the year before.

Kevin Stewart (Aberdeen Central) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary wish, as I do, that the Tories would explain to us how the Scottish Government is supposed to support local authorities to address potholes, as they ask, when their party is utterly content to see Scotland’s budget slashed by their Westminster masters? Does she agree that that sort of gaslighting is why the people of Scotland will never elect them to run this country?

Fiona Hyslop

I completely agree. Conservative Party members have no credibility when they come to the chamber and ask for the Government to give more money to local authorities at a time when their party is providing absolutely no increase to our budget and is taking 10 per cent out of our capital budget over the next 10 years. I think that they live in some kind of parallel universe.

Bus Partnership Fund

4. Rachael Hamilton (Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the bus partnership fund, including what the spending plans are for the £473.1 million that is reportedly unspent to date, and when the fund will be resumed. (S6O-03169)

The Minister for Agriculture and Connectivity (Jim Fairlie)

Following the United Kingdom autumn statement delivering the worst-case scenario for Scotland and a nearly 10 per cent real-terms cut in our capital budget from the UK Government, which my colleague has just mentioned, the Scottish Government had to take difficult decisions to deliver a balanced and sustainable spending plan for 2024-25. As such, regrettably, the bus partnership fund has been paused for 2024-25. However, future funding availability will be considered as part of our annual budget-setting process and prioritisation exercises.

Rachael Hamilton

Since the pandemic, lifeline bus services, particularly those in rural areas such as the Borders, have come under significant pressure because of increased operating costs and reduced revenue income. Some operators have withdrawn services completely in rural areas, which affects young people and elderly people.

A temporary pause in direct funding for the bus partnership fund is disastrous for the future of rural bus travel. Will Jim Fairlie tell me where the funding has gone and when he will reinstate the direct funding for the bus partnership fund to ensure that rural local authorities and transport operators can continue to provide vital rural transport links?

Jim Fairlie

There is the parallel universe that Fiona Hyslop was just talking about. The budget has been cut by £1.6 billion, and we cannot magic money out of the air. The Scottish Government will continue to put in place the priorities that it can to ensure that rural—[Interruption.] I am absolutely not minimising rural bus users’ difficulties—I fully understand them—but we cannot magic money out of nowhere. If the budget is continuously cut, services will be frozen.

We will come to the decision about how we will get those things back in line once we can put budgets back in place without the savage cuts that we are currently facing from Westminster Tories. [Interruption.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I remind members that we will listen to the questions with courtesy and respect, and we will listen to the responses with the same courtesy and respect. There are a number of supplementary questions, and I will try to get them all in, but they will need to be brief, as will the responses.

John Swinney (Perthshire North) (SNP)

Did the minister hear the finance secretary say during the budget process that she had received no alternative proposals from the Conservatives? As a consequence, the proposition that has just been put to the minister is laughable. The finances cannot be delivered to support it because of the cuts to the Scottish Government’s budget by the United Kingdom Government budget.

Jim Fairlie

I absolutely agree, but we must always come back to the point that this affects people. When we cut budgets, it is Rachael Hamilton’s constituents, my constituents and John Swinney’s constituents who feel the brunt of it. We must find a way to work together to get the budgets back in place so that we can provide the services that we want to provide.

Alex Rowley (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

I have spoken to Strathclyde Partnership for Transport, South East of Scotland Transport Partnership and many individual local authorities, which, between them, must have put in hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of bids for the fund. Does the minister accept that it is crucial that we have that investment if we are to get the bus services up to a point where people will want to leave the car at home and use them? Therefore, can we ensure that we prioritise that budget as part of the overall strategy to get more people out of cars and into buses?

Jim Fairlie

I agree with a lot of what Alex Rowley is saying. Of course we want to get more people onto public transport, including buses, exactly as he says. The fund is paused; the Government has not said that it will not continue in a later year. If we can get our budgets back to where we would like them to be after the cuts that we have faced, that is what the Government will do. We are absolutely committed to making bus travel work for the people of Scotland.

Willie Rennie (North East Fife) (LD)

When the Scottish National Party came to power, there were almost half a billion journeys on the buses every year. Over the following decade, that number dropped by 100 million, before dropping further since the pandemic. In the years before the autumn statement, why did the Government fail to spend the budget that was designed to reverse that decline?

Jim Fairlie

I very much hear what Willie Rennie says, but he completely forgot to talk about the pandemic and the fall in the number of bus users during it. In the south of Scotland alone, more than 180,000 people benefit from free bus travel, and there have been more than 460,000 journeys in the past month alone. We are absolutely committed to trying to do everything that we can to maintain bus services in Scotland, and it would be really helpful if our budgets did not get continuously slashed.

MV Caledonian Isles

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to support ferry users, in light of reports that MV Caledonian Isles will be out of action for four more months. (S6O-03170)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

The delay in the MV Caledonian Isles returning from essential dry docking is regrettable, and I recognise the frustration felt by the Arran community as a result. I spoke with Caledonian MacBrayne’s chief executive last week to convey my concern, and I have been clear that I expect CalMac to apply the revised route prioritisation matrix, which includes more emphasis on the level of use by island residents and commercial vehicles, along with higher prioritisation for routes with limited capacity on alternative services.

The Arran community and others across the network need those assurances, particularly as we look towards the Easter break and beyond. Meanwhile, Arran is being served by the MV Isle of Arran, with no capacity issues currently being reported.

Katy Clark

As the cabinet secretary knows, the Arran route is the busiest service, with islanders, tourism and the wider economy heavily reliant on it. The cabinet secretary has alluded to the fact that, as the year progresses, the MV Isle of Arran will not have the capacity needed to provide the service. In the discussions that she has had, what has been said about how capacity can be increased on the route as the year progresses?

Fiona Hyslop

That was one of the messages that I gave CalMac with regard to the capacity issues, particularly for the highly-used service to Arran. CalMac’s activities will include identifying any alternative measures that, during the July to August period in particular, might improve capacity for Arran and help to support the holiday season.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

In tourism, perception is critical. Irresponsible comments by Tory list MSPs that the ferry service is catastrophic do nothing to convey the reality that Arran is open for business. CalMac is making 11th-hour efforts to maximise capacity on the Ardrossan to Brodick route with the MV Isle of Lewis berthing trials, the results of which will not be known until next week. Does the cabinet secretary agree that Arran’s community must be fully briefed on those trials so that they can plan effectively for Easter?

Fiona Hyslop

The berthing trials are part of the attempt to identify other ways of improving capacity. I completely agree with the sentiment expressed by Kenneth Gibson that, despite such challenges, Arran and all our islands are very much open for business this Easter. It is important that we all take responsibility to ensure that our messaging on that is clear, including in comments made in the chamber and by others in the press.

Train Line Reopening (Ayr Station Hotel)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the reopening of the train line south of Ayr, in light of the fire at the Ayr station hotel. (S6O-03171)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

The restoration of rail services, including those running south of Ayr, is dependent on the completion of works to make the Ayr station hotel building safe, for which South Ayrshire Council is responsible. I understand that the council leader might have suggested dates for restoring the rail services; however, the basis upon which he made those suggestions is not clear. That was inadvisable, as he had no locus to do that; I made it clear when I met him that he must not take on the role of speaking for the rail authorities.

Announcements on the restoration of rail services can be for only Network Rail and ScotRail to advise. Only when the council’s works to make the hotel safer are completed will the rail industry be able to get access to carry out the necessary works to enable the restoration of services. Once there is certainty on the completion date for the safety-related works, Scotland’s Railway will start to communicate the timings for services being restored.

Sharon Dowey

The closure of the line is having a huge impact on visitor numbers to Ayr and the surrounding local economy. The Scottish grand national will be at Ayr racecourse on 20 April, with well over 20,000 racegoers coming to Ayr for the weekend. As the grand national supports a lot of jobs, gives a substantial boost to many Ayrshire businesses and is a major event for the local economy, it is imperative that the railway be opened before it starts. After all, the current arrangements are totally inadequate, especially given the fact that no trains can travel south. What action is being taken now to reopen the line, and will the cabinet secretary guarantee that the railway will be back to normal before the Scottish grand national?

Fiona Hyslop

The member really has to take a level of responsibility here. The railway can open only when it is safe to do so, and it is imperative that we all make considered remarks about when the rail service can be restored.

I hear what Sharon Dowey says about the grand national, which is one of the biggest days of the year in Ayr. I remember waitressing on grand national day and how busy the town was with people coming in. What I can say to her is that we will, with all our Transport Scotland colleagues, identify how we can support transportation to Ayr to ensure a successful Scottish grand national that day.

Western Isles Ferries (Deployment Decisions)

To ask the Scottish Government what factors are assessed when determining vessel deployment decisions for Western Isles ferry routes. (S6O-03172)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

Vessel deployment is an operational matter for CalMac Ferries, but ministers recognise the impact that is being felt as a result of service disruption. Following a request by communities, and ministers seeking this work, CalMac has reviewed the route prioritisation matrix for the major vessel fleet with the support of the ferries community board.

Following public consultation, CalMac has made a number of changes to its prioritisation approach, including more emphasis on the level of use by island residents and commercial vehicles, along with higher prioritisation for routes with limited capacity on alternative services. I fully expect that to be applied by CalMac when it considers options.

Alasdair Allan

My constituents have welcomed the summer timetable redeployment decisions that were announced yesterday for the period while the MV Caledonian Isles undergoes extensive repairs. However, CalMac is still exploring another alternative, namely the use of the MV Isle of Lewis on the Uig triangle, taking it away from the Castlebay to Oban route. Will the cabinet secretary assure my constituents that any vessel to be deployed on the latter route in such a scenario is more likely to be reliably suitable for such an exposed route than the MV Isle of Arran, which was being considered for the route by CalMac as recently as last week?

Fiona Hyslop

Scottish ministers note the concerns of communities as CalMac seeks to optimise deployment of the reduced fleet across the summer period until the return of the MV Caledonian Isles. As Dr Allan will be aware, it is the operator’s responsibility to make detailed deployment decisions, although we expect it to take account of the capacity and capability of vessels in its consideration. We understand that trials will be taking place next week to further consider the feasibility of that option.

Fife Circle Improvement Plan

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the improvement plan for the Fife circle railway line. (S6O-03173)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport (Fiona Hyslop)

It was helpful to meet Annabelle Ewing last month. Improving services for Fife communities is a priority issue for me and my officials at Transport Scotland, and I am pleased that there has been a reduction in the number of short-form services in Fife. However, although that is welcome, further work is required.

My officials have engaged with ScotRail through Scottish Rail Holdings to require improvements to rolling stock maintenance in order to make more trains available for service each day. A range of work is under way to improve services in Fife and, with the £116 million investment by the Scottish Government, we look forward to the reopening of the Levenmouth line.

Annabelle Ewing

Although it is welcome news that improvements are evidently in the pipeline, what my constituents want to know is: when will the improvement plan be implemented and will it address directly the long-standing problems with overcrowding and cancelled trains?

Fiona Hyslop

Overcrowding on Fife services is due to the short-forming of trains that serve the route, and that is caused by poor diesel fleet reliability. That is a legacy issue, caused in part by the poor staffing and fleet choices that were made by the previous franchisee.

My officials have required ScotRail to develop an improvement plan, which is currently under way and covers issues such as fleet availability and a monitoring system. Now that the plan is in place, it is proving useful in directing improvement action. There is a recruitment campaign, and that and related management action should deliver material improvements in the availability of maintenance staff in a matter of months. A number of fleet improvement investments are also being identified, which should deliver further improvements over the next two to three years.

Some of the items that I have mentioned are more immediate, and I will make sure that they are put forward in a form that people can see, particularly Annabelle Ewing, who has pursued the matter assiduously.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

With new stations being opened at Leven and Cameron Bridge in June this year, rail campaigners across Fife are feeling inspired and hopeful. Key progress is being made in the business cases for the reopening of stations at St Andrews and Newburgh. Will the cabinet secretary congratulate the communities that are leading the way? Does she see a need to expand rail further in Fife to achieve the modal shift away from car usage that we require nationally?

Fiona Hyslop

A number of communities right across Scotland—in particular, in Fife and the St Andrews area—are pursuing improvements of and developments in the rail system. I commend the efforts of all those involved in the Starlink campaign for progressing the transport appraisal for the St Andrews area, which involves considering a range of multimodal transport options.

We want to improve modal shift, and it is important that rail is part of that work. I understand that the planning appraisal that Mark Ruskell has just referred to is on-going and that there is no final conclusion to it.

Liam Kerr

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Earlier on, I asked the cabinet secretary a straight question on whether financial considerations were holding up the replacement of the class 43s. In her response, she suggested—in, dare I say, somewhat intemperate language—that I was wrong and that I was misrepresenting the findings of the Carmont board in relation to those trains. I am happy to send her a copy of the report, but I refer her especially to sections 76 and 77, especially the bit that says:

“RAIB considers it more likely than not that the outcome would have been better if the train had been compliant with modern crashworthiness standards.”

Therefore, Presiding Officer, will you give the cabinet secretary an opportunity to read the report, to reflect on her remarks, to correct the record and to send me an apology?

Thank you, Mr Kerr. That is not a point of order, as you well know.

Fiona Hyslop

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. Obviously, things that are said in this chamber—not just my response, but Liam Kerr’s original questions this week and last—appear in the Official Report. It is really important that the safety record is understood, and I will be more than delighted to resend the letter to Liam Kerr in order to correct his misrepresentations today and previously.

That, too, is not a point of order, but it is now on the record.