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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) [Draft]

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 13, 2022

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Medication Assisted Treatment and Workforce Update, Moveable Transactions (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Point of Order, Moveable Transactions (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Business Motion, Motion without Notice, Decision Time, Free Rail Travel (Blind and Partially Sighted People and Companions)


Free Rail Travel (Blind and Partially Sighted People and Companions)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Liam McArthur)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S6M-06145, in the name of Graham Simpson, on free rail travel for blind and partially sighted people and companions. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. I invite members who wish to participate to press their request-to-speak buttons or type RTS in the chat function, if they are joining us online.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that there is no national entitlement to free rail travel for companions under the National (Scotland) Concessionary Travel for Blind Persons card; understands that this is in contrast to the provision afforded to bus travel; is concerned that cost was named by more disabled people than non-disabled people as a reason not to use the train in the 2021 Scottish Household Survey; believes that a national rail concession policy for companions would improve safety, access to employment and social connections for the estimated 180,000 people living with sight loss in Scotland, including in the Central Scotland region, and notes the calls on the Scottish Government to work with local authorities to establish a national policy.


Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I start by thanking all 32 members from four parties who signed the motion that is before us. The issue has certainly struck a chord—and rightly so. It was brought to my attention at a meeting in September with Sight Scotland and Sight Scotland Veterans, which are two of Scotland’s oldest charities. For more than 200 years, they have been determined that no one should face sight loss alone and, in essence, that is what we are talking about in this debate. Given that the number of people in Scotland with sight loss is set to rise to more than 200,000 by 2030, there is a real need for support.

The issue is that there is no national policy for rail travel across Scotland that entitles the companions of blind and partially sighted people to free rail travel. Different concessionary and companion schemes are in place in various areas and councils, which is causing confusion for passengers and rail staff.

At the end of September, I wrote to the Minister for Transport and she replied, having subsequently met Sight Scotland. She admitted in her response to me that there is a postcode lottery—although that is my phrase. I hope that she will offer a solution to that today, because the situation is clearly unfair.

I will give an example from my region, where two different schemes operate. Falkirk Council offers no discount for companions, but Strathclyde Partnership for Transport has a scheme under which companions can travel at half the fare when accompanying someone. That contrasts with the national policy for bus travel, under which companions of people with a national entitlement card with the eye and “+1” symbols can travel for free on any service across Scotland.

For many blind and partially sighted people, having a companion can mean the difference between travelling or not travelling. A partially sighted person supported by Sight Scotland Veterans said:

“I would like to use the trains more often, but no way would I travel without someone else with me. My eyesight is getting worse—I couldn’t travel without a companion now.”

Another veteran said:

“It’s more dangerous getting on and off a train with a sight problem than on a bus. I always need someone when travelling. It’s also easier with +1 to use the bus, because my partner gets on for free, but I would prefer to use train because it’s quicker.”

Even when a concessionary scheme exists, it is not always possible to buy a ticket or the scheme is not known about. That is largely due to a lack of infrastructure, as there is no option on the ticket machine to select a companion ticket. Very often, that means that a companion must buy a ticket at full price, despite being entitled to a discount, depending on which local authority area they are travelling from or to. Companions of people with a card with the eye and “+1” symbols are often reliant on the knowledge of train staff about schemes to access the discount. At stations that have no staff, particularly smaller stations, asking someone simply is not an option. The situation is confusing and stressful.

Members might reasonably ask why someone’s travelling companion should travel for nothing or, indeed, why someone who is blind or has sight problems should do so, and that is a fair question. We know from the latest findings from the Scottish household survey that household incomes for disabled people tend to be lower than incomes for those who are not disabled. Cost was named by more disabled people than non-disabled people as a reason for not using the train. Use of rail services among disabled people is also lower than it is among non-disabled people, with 3 per cent of disabled people citing health reasons when saying why they do not use the train, compared with 0 per cent of non-disabled people. Those findings reflect the experiences of people with a visual impairment.

A single parent with Stargardt disease, which is a form of macular degeneration that causes central vision loss, explained the benefits of having a companion when travelling and why, although taking the train would be her preference, she chooses to take the bus instead, due to cost. She said:

“I go everywhere by bus only because of the free companion travel—that’s the reason I use the bus over the train,?because of the concessionary rate for whoever is with me. I’d rather take the train as the bus can be so unreliable, especially in the?darker nights, which reduces what vision I do have even more. I’d take the train more if I could.”

The charities estimate the cost of implementing a national policy for companions to be around £2 million. When we think about the benefits that it would bring, that is a small price to pay. It would make public transport more accessible and help the economy by improving access to employment. One in four registered blind and partially sighted people of working age are in employment, and the scheme could help to remove barriers to simply getting to a workplace. If the Scottish Government is serious about achieving the vision, as set out in its accessible travel framework, that

“All disabled people can travel with the same freedom, choice, dignity and opportunity as other citizens”,

it should provide free rail travel for blind and partially sighted people and their companions, as that would have a significant impact in meeting those outcomes.

A lack of national policy on free rail travel for companions of blind and partially sighted people is causing anguish for passengers and rail staff. It is clear to me that having a companion can ultimately make the difference between someone being able to make a journey or not. I therefore thank Sight Scotland and Sight Scotland Veterans for bringing this important issue to my attention, and I urge members to back the calls for a national policy to take steps towards a more equitable and accessible rail network across Scotland for everyone who uses it.


Rona Mackay (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP)

I am pleased to contribute to this important debate, and I thank Graham Simpson for bringing it to the chamber. His motion on free rail travel for blind and partially sighted people and companions really says it all: the cost of travelling on the train is prohibitive for blind or partially sighted people, because their essential companion has to pay.

I am fortunate to have the headquarters of the wonderful Deafblind Scotland in my constituency, and it raised that as the issue of most concern to it at one of our regular meetings. There is no national standard fare structure for communicators to accompany deafblind passengers on trains. I understand that travel is free on some routes but chargeable on others, as Graham Simpson outlined, which leads to geographical inequalities and confusion among rail staff.

The reality is that companions are even more essential on trains than they are on buses, where travel is—rightly—free for them. There are several factors that make that case. Of course, free travel is necessary on both forms of transport, but, when using trains, the gap between the platform and the train is of variable size, as is the height of the platform, and it is dangerous or impossible for a deafblind person or a partially sighted person to navigate that. In addition, stops can be missed, as the passenger cannot hear announcements or see the signage at stations. Also, these days, fewer and fewer stations have an on-site employee, so no help can be summoned, even in an emergency, which is obviously extremely concerning.

Added to those issues is the fact that the driver cannot help passengers. Indeed, they cannot even know whether someone is safely in their seat before they move off, in the same way that a bus driver can, by looking round.

I have no idea what the provision of the entitlement would cost. I know that the Government is financially extremely constrained at the moment, but I hope that a commitment can be made that that is something that we can deliver, if not immediately, then at some time in the near future. I look forward to hearing the minister’s response to that. The fact that the service is currently delivered by way of a postcode lottery—or a rail-route lottery—suggests to me that it would be possible to expand provision throughout Scotland without major disruption or expense.

I do not believe that anyone who is not directly affected by the exclusion could possibly understand how it feels to know that they are, in effect, barred from travelling by train. Levelling out the service would make a world of difference to those who need it and, to be honest, we owe it to those people who are bravely dealing with their sight loss and many other struggles every day to do so.

I think that I speak for all the amazing staff, volunteers and service users of Deafblind Scotland when I say that the ability for those people to travel throughout our country in safety and comfort would literally open up a whole new world for them.

Neil Bibby joins us online.


Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I commend Graham Simpson for bringing this members’ business debate to the chamber and for shining a light on an inequality that makes little sense.

The Parliament has a proud record of making public transport available to people who need it, whether they are the young, the old or the disabled, and there is a consensus in Parliament on the principle of concessionary travel for the groups who need it most. However, this debate reminds us that it is not just cost that is a barrier to accessing public transport and connections to the wider world.

After all, what is the point of having free travel if someone is unable to take up the opportunity because they need an assistant and are unable to pay for a companion? It seems anachronistic for that problem to be recognised for those who use our bus network but not for those who travel by rail. In addition, it does not seem fair that the benefit is afforded in some local authority areas but not in others. Scottish Labour strongly supports that being reviewed and access being widened to include companions of the blind on rail. That positive progressive step would improve the lives of thousands of people and recognise the specific challenges that people with sight loss face every day.

According to Sight Scotland, that would also improve social connectedness, as sight loss contributes to feelings of loneliness, and improve employment opportunities, as Graham Simpson outlined, for the three quarters of working-age blind and partially sighted people who are not in employment.

The Scottish Government’s national transport strategy delivery plan states:

“We will continue to review the benefits of the Scheme to ensure it best meets people’s needs and delivers a best value solution.”

Against that background, the estimated cost of £2 million, as per Sight Scotland’s calculations, would represent very good value.

The motion brings together two causes that I have supported since I was elected to this Parliament: better support for those who are blind or partially sighted and a better rail service for the wider public.

On the first cause, I pay tribute to the amazing work that is being done organisations such as Sight Scotland and the RNIB, which campaign tirelessly for the blind and partially sighted, constructively pointing out the many flaws in our public services that act as obstacles for those with sight issues and reminding us of the specific challenges that this community faces every day.

The RNIB’s transport accessibility agenda for this Parliament, which includes providing bus drivers with mandatory disability awareness training so that they can assist passengers, making service and timetable information available in accessible formats such as braille and large print, and having audio and visual announcements on buses, reminds us of the progress that we still must make before the public transport is fit for those with sight difficulties. All that is before we even get to the issues that impact on the rail services that we enjoy, whether sighted or not.

On the second cause, we face a real challenge in attracting people back to our railways and a programme of service cuts and office closures will only further reduce passenger numbers, moving us further away from the good and affordable service that we all want.

I hope that we can learn from other countries, where positive steps such as short-term rail fare reductions can again make taking the train viable during a cost of living crisis, when people have to find alternatives ways to get to work.

In summary, I put on record my hope that we can make this policy idea a reality for blind or partially-sighted passengers, as a positive next step towards delivering a transport network that works for everyone.


Russell Findlay (West Scotland) (Con)

I thank Graham Simpson for bringing this debate to the chamber. It focuses on a big issue that faces people in Scotland who are affected by sight loss.

I cannot be in the chamber today due to industrial action on the railways. However, in a debate about rail travel, I will begin with a railway reference and speak about an incredible sculpture that is situated outside Manchester’s Piccadilly train station. Titled “Victory Over Blindness”, it depicts a line of seven life-sized blindfolded first world war soldiers. The great war claimed the lives of an estimated 900,000 British military personnel, and countless more were maimed or injured, including tens of thousands who suffered damaged eyesight or permanent blindness. When I first saw “Victory Over Blindness” a few months ago, it stopped me in my tracks and made me think, as good art should. Cultures throughout history have been mindful of human mortality and the inevitability of death. That poignant memorial made me feel profoundly grateful for the precious gift of sight. It reminded me how lucky I am to be able to see it with my own eyes. Although it may be difficult to imagine living in a world of darkness, it is important that we sometimes take the time to do so.

I experienced similar feelings during a recent visit to the Sight Scotland Veterans Hawkhead centre in Paisley. That fantastic facility supports ex-military personnel who suffer from sight problems. The emphasis is on providing them with the skills and confidence to live as independently as possible. At one point, I inadvertently caused a stooshie between Army and Navy veterans, but I was assured that such friendly fire is a daily occurrence. The centre manager, Alison Gray, and her team are passionate about making a difference to the lives of those who visit. Just like the statue in Manchester, my visit to Hawkhead caused me to count my blessings.

It was during my visit to Hawkhead that I first heard from the sister charity, Sight Scotland, about its campaigning work. The fair rail vision campaign seeks free rail travel across Scotland for those who have a national concessionary travel for blind persons card and their companions. As Graham Simpson articulated so well, the introduction of a Scotland-wide policy would be life changing for many people living with sight loss. At present, the fact that a blind person’s companion must pay to travel can be the difference between that person making a journey or not. That can close the door on opportunities for employment and social interaction.

In response to a Sight Scotland consultation, 60 per cent of correspondents said that sight loss caused them feelings of loneliness. Increased isolation can make their world darker and their horizons smaller. Almost 25,000 people in my West Scotland region live with sight loss, with the largest number—almost 6,000—living in Renfrewshire. I therefore urge ministers to embrace this sterling campaign and work with local authorities to make the policy happen.

As Rona Mackay said, let us end the rail route lottery. That aim is entirely consistent with the Government’s accessible travel framework, which rightly states as a vision:

“All disabled people can travel with the same freedom, choice, dignity and opportunity as other citizens.”


Katy Clark (West Scotland) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of members’ interests.

I congratulate Graham Simpson on securing this debate and on the way in which he has made his case. His motion states:

“cost was named by more disabled people than non-disabled people as a reason not to use the train in the 2021 Scottish Household Survey”.

The points that he has made show very clearly why we need to ensure that we have a national policy.

As has been said, whether a visually impaired person and their companion can access fare-discounted rail travel depends on where they live. As charities such as Sight Scotland and Sight Scotland Veterans have said, there is a very strong and unarguable case for a national entitlement.

Freedom of information requests by Sight Scotland have revealed that, although most local authorities and Strathclyde Partnership for Transport offer free or discounted rail travel for blind or partially sighted people, only seven offer a discount to companions, and none offers free companion travel. Graham Simpson made that point fully and powerfully. The rules differ depending on where people live.

We believe that 25,000 people in the West Scotland region would be entitled to such travel if it was available in every local authority area—Russell Findlay mentioned that. Thousands of people in West Scotland are directly impacted. As we know, people with disabilities tend to be on lower incomes. Perhaps that explains why cost is often named as the factor that dissuades people from using rail, as Graham Simpson’s motion mentions.

Strathclyde Partnership for Transport covers all of the West Scotland region. In the concessionary scheme, there is some support for companions on buses. A companion can travel free on buses, and they can travel on rail at half of the full fare if they have a national entitlement card. That is one of the better schemes. As has been said, there is no support at all for companions in many places in Scotland.

As we know, cost is only one of the factors that deter people from using rail—particularly people with disabilities, including blind people and people with sight problems. The accessibility of rail remains a significant issue. Earlier this year, ScotRail revealed to me that just a third of stations in the West Scotland region, which I represent, are deemed to be accessible. For example, Kilwinning railway station is considered to be accessible, but until very recently the lifts worked until only 4 o’clock in the afternoon. As a result of representations that my office made, they now work later in the day.

A third of stations are deemed to be accessible, but even that does not necessarily mean that they are fully accessible for everyone who might wish to use them. Only two stations in the West Scotland region are currently earmarked for access for all funding to improve accessibility. Cost is one factor, but it is clear that there are other factors that we as a Parliament and the Scottish Government need to address in order to make rail a real option for many people who are blind or have sight issues.

On a previous occasion, the cabinet secretary undertook to carry out a review of women’s safety on public transport, and I know from discussions with her that that work has been taking place. Many of the issues that women face on public transport are very similar to those that are faced by people with sight issues and other disabilities.

The commitment to carry out a review of women’s safety on public transport was made following a debate on the threatened closures of ticket and booking offices. We know that that is a live issue, not only in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom. I understand that the Scottish Government is awaiting decisions from down south on what will happen to booking and ticket offices there. However, over many years now, we have seen booking offices close across the UK, which has had a significant and disproportionate impact on visually impaired and blind passengers.

Ms Clark, you need to bring your remarks to a close.

Katy Clark

The debate raises wider issues about the accessibility of public transport and rail in particular, and I very much welcome that Graham Simpson focuses on cost in his motion.

The Scottish Government’s accessible travel framework—

You do need to conclude.

Katy Clark

The framework states as a vision:

“All disabled people can travel with the same freedom, choice, dignity and opportunity as other citizens”.

I believe that we can make that a reality if we address the points that have been made in the debate.


The Minister for Transport (Jenny Gilruth)

I congratulate Mr Simpson on securing the debate, which is on a hugely important topic that is close to my heart. As I was listening to the contributions from members, I recalled my grandmother, who was registered blind, and one of the campaigns that she undertook over the years to improve accessibility at Leuchars station. She was successful. It was a matter that was close to her heart, and something that she had to campaign and fight for tirelessly over the years.

As we have heard from a number of members, this debate is fundamentally important because ScotRail is now in public ownership, which needs to mean something for the communities that we all represent. We need to have a rail operator that listens to the people better. Mr Simpson will be aware of my views in that regard, and I hope that he and others across the chamber will contribute to the national rail conversation when it launches in the coming weeks.

I will touch on some of the points that members made in the debate before I come to my response as minister. I emphasise that the inequity between rail and bus that was highlighted by Mr Simpson and Rona Mackay is not fair. However, it is worth saying that some local authorities have companion schemes, which we heard about from Ms Clark. West Lothian, Fife and Strathclyde all offer a 50 per cent discount. Mr Simpson highlighted that the inequity can lead to passenger confusion due to different approaches in different parts of the country, and I think that that has to change.

I met Sight Scotland earlier this year, not at Mr Simpson’s behest but because I have grown up with members of my family who suffer from visual impairment. For that reason, I know how important it is that we get this right. Transport Scotland will provide me with further advice on the matter next week, following that meeting.

Last week, I met Seescape, which was formerly known as Fife Society for the Blind, in Glenrothes in my constituency, and I was very grateful to Lesley Carcary for taking the time to explain the challenges that are presented to the blind community, which has been particularly affected by the pandemic restrictions.

Graham Simpson

In her letter to me, the cabinet secretary said that she would take advice from Transport Scotland. What kind of advice is she expecting to get? Will it be advice on how to run a national scheme or something else?

Jenny Gilruth

I do not want to pre-empt the advice that I have commissioned from officials, but it will look, for example, at the cost of a national scheme, which has been touched on today. There is a contextualisation that I will present later in my speech in relation to the fair fares review, where this might also sit. It is important that we do not divorce the two topics, because the fair fares review looks at affordability across the public transport network. However, I take Mr Simpson’s point on board.

Rona Mackay spoke about the importance of opening up a whole new world to the blind community, and I very much recognise that sentiment. Neil Bibby spoke about the social connectedness and opportunities to access employment that widening the scheme at national level would provide. Russell Findlay spoke about his visit to meet veterans with sight problems and the important work of Sight Scotland in that respect. I will not comment on the friendly fire that he mentioned, but I note that today’s debate has been marked by a spirit of consensus on the need to do better.

Katy Clark referred to the important work that I have been progressing with Transport Scotland on women’s safety on public transport. In the coming weeks, I hope to publish a report on new research that we commissioned earlier this year. It is important to say that there is absolutely a link between safety and accessibility in relation to rail, to which Ms Clark alluded.

It is also important to refer to the fact that the Citizen Participation and Public Petitions Committee has been taking evidence on the matter. I understand that, last week, the committee agreed to initiate inquiries via the local authorities that offer a discount scheme in order to consider uptake and the understanding of rail staff and passengers. I am keen to take on board some of the information that that committee is gathering in considering any advice that Transport Scotland officials provide me with in the coming weeks.

I listened carefully to the points that members from across the chamber made on the issue of access to the rail network. As a very regular user of the rail network, I see at first hand how passengers use it, and I see particularly its importance for connectivity. I agree with members that the current position of having different rail companion schemes across Scotland, as well as varying approaches across public transport, needs to be reviewed, and I can confirm that work will now be progressed as part of the fair fares review, which will include a review specifically on that issue. The review will report by early next year. I hope that that reassures Mr Simpson and other members about the importance that I give to the topic. It is absolutely essential that we get it right.

Although our main topic of discussion today has been the rail companion card scheme and we are probably united in our wish to see that review move forward, it is important to recognise our on-going work on accessibility and the schemes that are available more broadly in that respect. The new station at Reston and the one at Inverness airport that will open very shortly are fully accessible stations that have been designed to the highest industry standards. Work continues in my constituency on the Levenmouth project, which will involve two new stations that will be open to passengers, which will also be fully accessible. We are working with our industry partners to deliver that multimodal transport system.

Additionally, Croy station, which is a busy station on the main Glasgow to Edinburgh line, has recently had a new footbridge and lifts installed, as has Johnstone station. Four more stations across Scotland—at Port Glasgow, Uddingston, Dumfries and Anniesland—will also benefit from step-free access by early 2024.

It is important to remind members that—at present, anyway—rail accessibility remains a matter that is reserved to the United Kingdom Government. Nonetheless, we are pressing on with direct Scottish Government funding for accessibility improvements at Pitlochry, Kingussie, Aviemore, Nairn and Carstairs, which will again be completed by early 2024.

Katy Clark

The minister correctly pointed out that accessibility remains a reserved function. However, the fund that I mentioned seeks representations from the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland in relation to where money should be spent. As I said, there are only two bids in relation to West Scotland. Why are there not more representations in relation to upgrading and dealing with what is clearly a major problem?

Jenny Gilruth

Ms Clark highlights an important point about the role that Transport Scotland plays within the current framework. I am more than happy to ask my officials to meet the member to talk through the details of her region and how the scheme affects her part of Scotland. However, it is important to say that the scheme is reserved to the Department for Transport, although she is right that ministers in Scotland have a level of impetus in that we can share views on how the scheme is operated.

In Scotland, we have ScotRail’s passenger assist service, which gives essential assistance to those who need help when they are travelling on the ScotRail network. Travellers in Scotland can book passenger assistance at one hour’s notice, and it can be requested from ScotRail in a number of ways, which is hugely important for those who have a visual impairment. We also have the turn up and go service, which has been important in improving accessibility more broadly.

It is important that we recognise the accessibility challenges with some of our rolling stock and railway carriages. I have spoken about our commitment to the railway network, our work on the fair fares review and accessibility improvements to the railway network at stations, but the carriages that we travel in are also hugely important. I recognise that there is a level of challenge with carriage allocation in parts of the service. That is particularly an issue with the Fife services, but the challenge has been highlighted in other parts of Scotland, too.

In my meeting prior to the debate, I discussed that matter with Transport Scotland, and I have asked ScotRail for an update on it. In the post-pandemic world that we are living in, if folk are jammed into trains like sardines, that will not exactly encourage people out of their cars and back on to our railways. We need to encourage better carriage allocation, because that will better meet accessibility needs for all passengers.

If I may, Presiding Officer, I will say a final word about our national rail conversation. Very shortly, in the new year, I will set out the timescales for that important work, which I see moving forward in two distinct public-facing phases. That work will be critical in ensuring that voices across Scotland are heard and that they help to make railway services in Scotland fit for the future.

I thank everyone for participating in this well-considered and important debate. I thank Mr Simpson for bringing the issue to the chamber and emphasising the key role of rail in Scotland’s connectivity and how we can consistently support the visually impaired.

That concludes the debate.

Meeting closed at 17:21.