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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee 28 March 2018

Agenda: Transport (Winter Resilience), Islands (Scotland) Bill: Stage 2


Contents


Transport (Winter Resilience)

The Convener (Edward Mountain)

Good morning, and welcome to the 10th meeting in 2018 of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. I give a special welcome to anyone who is watching the meeting on Facebook, and ask everybody present to ensure that their mobile phones are on silent.

Agenda item 1 is transport and winter resilience. Do any members of the committee want to declare any interests that are relevant to agenda item 1?

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I am honorary president of the Scottish Association for Public Transport, which has an interest in trains and buses, for example, and I am honorary vice-president of Railfuture.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

I am honorary vice-president of the Friends of the Far North Line.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I am a member of the cross-party group on rail and a member of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

I am a co-convener of the cross-party group on rail.

The Convener

There is a lot of interest in rail around the table.

The evidence session is on the recent transport disruptions during the period of severe weather in late February and early March. I welcome the Minister for Transport and the Islands, Humza Yousaf; Martin Thomson, the networks impact manager at Transport Scotland; Andrew Harper, the timetable development manager at Transport Scotland; Alex Hynes, the managing director of the ScotRail Alliance; and George Mair, from the Confederation of Passenger Transport.

I thank all of you for coming in for an early start. Committees do not always start so early, so I am very grateful that you have all found the time to come in. I am especially grateful to the minister for adjusting his programme at late notice to make the early start possible.

I ask the minister, Alex Hynes and George Mair to make brief opening statements.

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

Good morning. I will keep my remarks brief.

The recent severe winter weather was unusual. There were Met Office warnings of snow across much of Scotland and, as members know, there was the first snow red warning in Scotland since the Met Office adopted its colour-coded warning system. Although we know that severe weather will cause disruption, we cannot, of course, prevent that extreme bad weather. However, we can prepare for the conditions, so we do all that we possibly can to mitigate the effects of snow and ice.

The Scottish Government continues to invest in the latest technology to allow us to respond to winter weather, whether it is rain, wind, ice or snow. Clear, concise and consistent travel advice was given throughout the weather-warning period by the Scottish ministers, Police Scotland and Transport Scotland. During the red and amber warning periods, the advice was to avoid travel unless it was absolutely necessary. During those periods and in the immediate recovery period, the multi-agency response team—the MART—and the Transport Scotland resilience room operated 24 hours a day. All partners worked collaboratively and tirelessly to prepare for and tackle the emerging problems.

Extreme and challenging conditions were experienced across a number of modes of transport. I thank the emergency services for the efforts that they made with the assistance of mountain rescue teams and other partners. They worked absolutely tirelessly throughout the night and day to assist people who were stranded on the M80, for example, and to ensure that all welfare issues were handled as quickly as possible.

This Government has taken a wide range of steps to assess and improve our resilience to the challenge of winter; to mitigate its impacts and, crucially, to ensure that our transport networks recover in order to get daily life and business back to normal as quickly and as safely as possible.

Mutual aid was agreed and provided to local authorities through the regional resilience partnerships. Following that spell of winter weather, the Bellwin scheme was triggered, under which ministers can consider financial assistance for local councils following heavy snowfall.

We learn something new each time Scotland experiences severe weather. I am keen that the Government, Police Scotland and other partners and stakeholders learn lessons from the situation in order to improve their resilience efforts during similar conditions in the future.

The Convener

Thank you, minister.

Alex Hynes (ScotRail Alliance)

Good morning and thank you for inviting me to this session.

Overall, I am proud of how we performed during the red weather warning. Our people went above and beyond the call of duty day and night to keep our customers moving where possible and, of course, to get the railway back up and running as quickly as possible after the very worst of the weather had passed.

We kept trains running where it was safe to do so. We put stranded customers up in hotels, we got taxis for customers, we kept our major stations open into the night where necessary, and we did much more besides. Some of the videos and images that we shared on social media brought home to people the conditions in which we were operating.

The key factor in every decision that we made was safety. Was it safe to run trains, was it safe to have our people out there clearing the network and was it safe to keep customers moving?

Making decisions and communicating them clearly to our customers as quickly as we could was also very important. The Met Office issued its red weather warning on the Wednesday at 12 minutes past 11. Within two hours we had made the decision to have a controlled wind-down of our services and had communicated that to our customers. We worked closely with the Scottish Government and its agencies to co-ordinate that.

Our infrastructure team worked more than 20,000 hours clearing 2,800 miles of track and getting Scotland’s railways back open. We received 52,000 in-bound messages on social media over two weeks, which was four times the normal amount.

We know that we did not get everything right and, as you would expect, we have already carried out an initial review of how we performed. We could have been quicker to confirm timetables for the following day, so we will do some work internally across the alliance to allow that to happen.

We also had problems with our website going down at one point, so we are working to ensure that our information technology infrastructure can cope better in the future.

As I said at the beginning of my statement, overall I am very proud of how our 7,500 people performed during the period. The positive feedback that we received from our customers is testament to that.

The Convener

Thank you.

George Mair (Confederation of Passenger Transport)

Good morning and thank you, convener. The Confederation of Passenger Transport is a trade association for bus and coach operators in Scotland. As such, we are well placed to receive feedback from our members on the many challenges that they faced during the period of bad weather. Like ScotRail’s staff, our members’ staff did a fantastic job—some even to the extent that they were highlighted in the media consistently. It was a difficult and challenging period, but a good lot of effort and work went into keeping services going and getting them back up after they had stopped.

For many people in the industry, this was probably their first experience of a period of really bad winter weather. One has to go back to 2010, or possibly to about 1998, to remember a similar period. Thankfully, such weather is not a common feature of our operations these days. However, that in itself breeds significant complacency. If it was a regular feature—if we had such weather every year—everybody would be in a different place; there would be different equipment, more staff and, some might suggest, larger budgets. We would certainly deal with it differently.

There is a lot to be said about the staff who were driving buses and the local authorities that were trying to keep roads clear. For many, it was their first involvement in such terrible weather.

In any major situation, it is wise to take the time to take stock—to look back at what was done well and what could be improved upon. It is incumbent on everybody to do that—in the bus industry, in rail, in Government and in local authorities. We should look back, reflect, give praise where it is due and look for new and better ways to do things that did not work so well on this occasion. In that regard, I was delighted to be invited this morning; I am happy to answer any questions and look forward to participating.

The Convener

Thank you, George. The first question is from Richard Lyle.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

Good morning. Do you believe that during the beast from the east the trunk road operating companies met the commitments that are set out in their winter service plans, and will you comment on their operations and the commitment of the staff?

Humza Yousaf

From my perspective, it was quite an experience being in the control centre over those three days with the staff. I thank not only the staff in our traffic control centres, important though they are, but those who work in back-room functions for the rail networks, the bus industry and right across the emergency services. We do not see those people, but they do their best to help us to recover—helping traffic to move on the trunk roads, and helping trains and buses to run.

I am probably going to caveat almost every answer today with, “Yes—there are always lessons that we can learn”, but that said, there is not a shadow of doubt in my mind that the operating companies not only performed well in terms of their contracts, but many, if not all, went above and beyond that.

I will talk about the MART. Imagine representatives of operating companies around a table, discussing where the problems are coming up in the network. There are tens and tens of cameras linked to screens in the control centre, so they are able to see where the problems are surfacing. The companies work really well together. One operating company will say to another that it needs an extra two bits of kit because it is facing a problem, perhaps on the M80 at Castlecary. The operating companies work together in a co-ordinated fashion. It does not matter what the exact stipulations of their contracts are—if another operating company needs additional equipment, plant or resource, they work closely together.

I am in charge of approximately 3,500km of trunk road network. During the severe winter weather—the beast from the east—we had a number of challenges on the M80, A720 and a few other bits and bobs. However, the vast majority of that 3,500km was incident free and—which is important—people were not hurt during that time. I am not saying that it was an almighty success, and there are certainly things that we have to learn, but the trunk road operating companies generally did a remarkable job.

Richard Lyle

Were you satisfied that the trunk road operating companies had sufficient staff, equipment and other resources to deal with the winter weather? I take on board the points that Mr Mair made earlier, and what you said about the companies making sure that if equipment was needed somewhere else, it was en route.

Humza Yousaf

George Mair’s point was a nuanced and acute observation, and I thank him for making it. We, or any Government, can decide to invest more money in more specialised equipment, but the money would have to come from health, education or some other budget. The country experiences such weather with some regularity, so should we make that investment or accept that such weather events are not altogether common—touch wood? There is a fine balance and judgment to be made and we will always invest to some extent in new technology and equipment. When I did the winter launch in October or November this year, we showcased some of the new equipment that we had bought, including Unimogs, equipment to deal with flooding, and gritters that spread liquid brine rather than wetted salt.

There is always, without a shadow of doubt, equipment that we should invest in, but on the flipside, we must make a careful judgment about how often that equipment would be used and so on.

08:45  

I know that we are pushed for time, so I will make this my final point. A key lesson that we learned from 2010 was that we must ensure that we have adequate salt stocks: we now have record salt stocks. To put that into context, this winter we used more than twice as much salt as we used last winter, but we still have plenty left. We also have a reserve in case stocks runs low.

I am satisfied that we have good equipment, but we will add to it every winter, to make it even better.

The Convener

George—do you want to comment on the trunk roads?

George Mair

The minister has highlighted that there were incidents on the main arteries. In general terms, once those were resolved, things were back in motion and were getting back to full service gradually over the week and towards the weekend.

It is absolutely right that we look back to identify areas that worked well and at where we can make improvements. However, spontaneous things happen, so it is key that we are able to deal with those situations, get them cleared up and get normality back into the network.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

In my area of Aberdeenshire, the council often closes roads—for example, the Banchory to Fettercairn and Corgarff to Tomintoul roads—in periods of bad weather. In fact, during the recent red weather warning, the railways were—quite rightly—closed on public safety grounds, as Alex Hynes has mentioned.

My question is primarily for the minister, because I think that it relates to a decision that he would make. Aberdeenshire Council closed the local roads and the decision was taken to close the railways. Did you consider whether to close the worst-affected trunk roads, such as the M80? That is an important question, because closing those roads would have meant that we did not have some of the problems.

Humza Yousaf

Yes, we did consider that, and I will say why we did not do so. First, the decision whether to close roads is an operational decision for Police Scotland. We work closely with Police Scotland and we have conversations about such matters.

I again remind members of the context. The weather event, particularly in the days leading up to the red weather warning, did not catch people by surprise. It had been trailed in the newspapers that the beast from the east was coming. Even my harshest critic would no doubt say that our message on the Monday and Tuesday before the red weather warning, about avoiding travel unless absolutely necessary, was clear and consistent. Despite the messaging and the trailing of the weather event—“the beast from the east” is not a nice fluffy name; people knew that it would be a tough weather event—tens of thousands of people chose to travel. Some of that travel might have been absolutely necessary, but I can tell members from what I saw on the cameras that some of it was unnecessary. Because people chose to travel, the police could have decided to close some of the pinchpoints and the more difficult parts of the trunk road network. The difficulty in doing so was that that would have pushed all the traffic on to local infrastructure, which would have absolutely been unable to cope.

We have some of the best equipment and plenty of salt stocks. We did our best to keep the trunk road network clear, but it took local authorities days and days to recover parts of the local network. If we had pushed all the trunk road traffic on to the local infrastructure, there is simply no way that it could have coped.

Mike Rumbles’s point was another acute observation. We know where the pinchpoints are on M80, such as Castlecary and the Beattock summit, and we know that there are inclines on the M77 at Maidenhill and Fenwick where heavy goods vehicles often lose traction. Should we work alongside the police to close those roads if we ever have a red warning of snow in the future? Would that be the right thing to do? We are considering that approach.

There are other options. For example, should we keep heavy goods vehicles in one lane and enforce that for, say, a 3-mile stretch? Should we enact an “operation stack”, which involves stacking HGVs in lay-bys or on the hard shoulder? All that thinking goes on, but I understand from my discussions with the police that the reason why they did not close roads was that the local infrastructure simply would not have been able to cope with the volume of traffic and we would have had a worse situation.

Mike Rumbles

But the alternative is that people are stranded. It is not just a case of the roads not being able to cope with the volume of traffic.

Humza Yousaf

With the greatest respect, that is not the alternative. People would have been stranded; they would have been stranded on the local roads, which would have been a more difficult situation. A gritter cannot get up and down through traffic on a local road. Where there are two lanes of trunk road plus the hard shoulder, gritters often use the hard shoulder, with a blue-light escort, to try to recover the road network. We just cannot do that where there is a single lane.

I agree that closing the trunk road is another option. It is not something that I am discounting for the future, by any means. However, I know from experience—and I absolutely believe the police when they say this—that the local road infrastructure could not have coped in the situation that we are talking about.

Mike Rumbles

I understand and accept that response. For future reference, are you saying that, given that we know the pinchpoints, when we get another red warning you might discuss with the police a requirement for the road haulage industry to stick to one lane? I would like to hear George Mair’s response to that, too.

Humza Yousaf

I have already had conversations with the HGV sector, and I will meet the sector again tomorrow to talk about our winter plans. The bus industry will be part of that conversation, of course.

I would like to have a range of options. I would not discount any option, including Police Scotland closing part of the trunk road network. However, as I said, if we close part of the trunk road network we might well face the problem of local roads not being able to cope. In some cases, local roads might well be able to cope. In others, we might need to put in place a mitigation plan, alongside local authorities, to assist with the situation.

Closing part of the network should be an option, as should stacking HGVs and enforcing use of a single lane so that, even if one breaks down in lane 1, others cannot creep past in lane 2, which would be closed to traffic flow.

I am not saying that the problems that we witnessed were all caused by HGVs; that was certainly not the case. Other vehicles were involved in incidents.

Let me say, for clarity, that I would not expect the police to discount road closures. They will close roads for safety, which is their number 1 priority.

The Convener

Does George Mair want to comment, briefly?

George Mair

I will be brief. We have members who operate express coach services between the main urban areas of Scotland, and they make good use of the trunk road network in doing so. They would like the trunk roads to be kept up and running so that they can continue to operate their services. Coach services can be an alternative to rail when rail is not available—they have been successful in that regard on previous occasions.

Humza Yousaf

If I may, convener, I will make one more point, very briefly. Some folk asked whether we could have cleared the trunk road network and kept traffic moving. My response is that, particularly during the red weather warning event, even if we had managed to make the surface black by clearing some of the snow and ice, that would not necessarily have made it safe to travel, given the blizzard conditions and the poor visibility in the falling snow. Even if we are able to clear the road surface, it is not necessarily safe for people to travel. We must always be conscious of that.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

In an answer to a topical question on 6 March, John Swinney MSP said:

“After every severe weather incident, the Government undertakes a review of how it was handled to identify lessons that can be learned.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2018; c 18.]

Has the review of the response to the recent severe weather produced results, to date?

Humza Yousaf

We are undertaking the review. We have done parts of it already, but we still need to get all our stakeholders to engage with it. You will appreciate that we are not yet through the winter, and a full-scale winter debrief cannot happen until we are through the winter. We are all alert to the fact that we are going to get some snow and sleet showers over the Easter weekend—that is likely, according to the Met Office, with whom I had a call yesterday.

I could rifle off a list of things that we have learned from previous winters, from last winter right back to 10 winters ago, but for the sake of brevity, I will not do so.

You asked about the beast from the east. On that particular event, there has already been a lot of discussion with stakeholders, particularly about the M80 at Castlecary, which is a pinchpoint, as we see time and again, both northbound and southbound. That has been a particular focus of the debrief on the weather event.

Peter Chapman

I want to home in on the hell on the M80 at Castlecary. That stretch was an issue for the whole area and the reason why hundreds of travellers were stranded overnight. Surely you need to focus on that pinchpoint and ensure that that part of the road is kept clear. If that bit of road is the problem, why can you not have a gritter going up and down, making sure that the road is clear and bare? I am sure that that would be possible.

Humza Yousaf

Again with the greatest respect—I would invite all members to come to the control centre to see what happens—we had more than one gritter constantly going up and down the northbound and southbound carriageways. We had a number of gritters doing that on the M80.

If you cast your mind back to the red weather event and looking out of your window, or if you were anywhere near the M80 or saw it on the news, you will remember that the weather was utterly relentless. We did not have a window of a couple of hours in order to try to recover the situation. We had constant blizzard conditions. That is why the red warning was issued, of course. There was simply no let-up. I was with the Met Office staff looking at the radar map and asking when we would get a window of opportunity, even just for an hour, and they said that it was going to be pretty consistent for the next 10 hours or so—I cannot remember exactly. It ended up being 15 hours.

We know that the M80 is a pinchpoint, so we placed the new equipment that we bought—the Unimog—there. The Unimog is not as big as a gritter, so it can get through traffic more easily.

Mr Chapman makes a good point. Following on from that, we are now identifying the six, seven or eight pinchpoints on the trunk road network—they usually involve inclines—where the incidents take place. As I said to Mike Rumbles, we are considering what we should do at those pinchpoints during extreme weather—for example, whether we should take the nuclear option, which is for the police to close the roads, whether we should carry out operation stack, and so on.

Mr Chapman’s point is right, but no one should be under any illusion that we did not have quite a bit of equipment at the pinchpoints, particularly on the M80.

The Convener

I will bring in Jamie Greene and then come back to Peter Chapman and Richard Lyle, if we have time. Please keep your questions short.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

Good morning, panel. Minister, you said that, during amber and red warnings, the advice is not to travel unless it is absolutely necessary. That is sage advice. Do you think that therein lies the problem, in that the public has an inadequate understanding of the difference between an amber and a red warning? I think that the phrase you used is confusing, just as people’s perception of when they should and should not travel is confused.

The Convener

I will bring in the minister, but I saw George Mair nod, so I might bring him in after that. Minister, a short answer would be a good answer.

Humza Yousaf

Brevity is my middle name, convener.

That is a good point. One of the learning points that we took from feedback on the weather event that we had in the middle of January—you will remember that there was a fair bit of snow—was that the number of warnings was far too confusing. There was travel advice from the Government, there were Met Office weather warnings and there was police travel advice, and all of that just seemed to confuse people. They thought, “What the heck is a stage 4 or an amber warning?” For the beast from the east event, we tried to be more aligned in what we were saying and the Government tried to take the lead on the messaging front.

However, there is a bit of learning to do around the Met Office warning system of yellow, amber and red. We need to have conversations about that because there are different types of amber. Before I became transport minister, I was not alert to the fact that there is a matrix. When I sat down with the Met Office at the beginning of the week—on the Monday or the Tuesday—I was told that, in the matrix, the amber warning was right on the cusp of becoming a red warning. If you imagine a matrix, it was in the box just underneath the red warning. That is why I took the decision on the Tuesday to say that we were on the cusp of a red, which we had never seen before—it was unprecedented.

I think that the advice was really consistent, despite all the criticisms that people will give. I genuinely think that the communication was clear and consistent, and the member’s party leader has said that. That is something to learn from and to improve on in future.

09:00  

The Convener

We have strayed slightly into the warning system, which we were going to deal with later. However, rather than lose the train of thought, I ask George Mair to comment on that issue, after which I will bring in Stewart Stevenson.

George Mair

After being invited to the meeting, I contacted members to ask for feedback on some of the issues that they believe prevailed during the period. The one consistent message that came back was about the understanding of the warnings. Some expressed the view that there appeared to be different understandings of the various warnings across the bodies that were involved. Somebody mentioned that they heard the phrase “high amber” being used—I now realise who probably said that—and that people were asking what it meant.

We should probably look back at the understanding of the metrics and the logic behind them and consider whether there is a better way to communicate those. Some of the guys said that, in countries that they visit in Europe, there is a numerical scale, so we could consider whether that is better. Another issue is about how often the system is used and whether people remember it. For me, there is certainly a point that people are not getting it—they do not understand the ratings.

Another element that came across strongly was that we seem to be getting warnings more often now. If people are on the periphery of an area where there has been an amber warning, they might think that they have had worse weather under a yellow warning. It is difficult to give a detailed weather forecast that says precisely that it will be X, Y or Z in someone’s location. However, that issue needs to be looked at further.

Stewart Stevenson

I will structure my questions in a particular way. First, do we know where people get the information on which they will base their decisions? We know where we put the information out, but have we looked at what people use? That question has different parts. The first is about what people use for planning purposes. For example, what do they use to decide whether they will bother leaving home at all or to find out whether public transport is available? Then, during the course of the journey, what real-time information do people use? We need to know that so that we can build on the things that people really use.

Humza Yousaf

As I said, it was fascinating being in the control centre, because there was the radio broadcasting from the back as well as our on-going Twitter operation—or our social media operation—and then broadcasters including radio broadcasters were frequently coming in to do interviews with me, Stein Connelly or other members of the Transport Scotland team.

We have gathered some of the data. On 2 March this year, the traffic Scotland website had a record-breaking number of page impressions—it was in excess of 20.2 million. The traffic Scotland Twitter page has more than 250,000 followers. I have not yet gathered the number of Twitter messages and exchanges that we had, but we should absolutely do that.

From having been in that room, it is clear to me that more and more people are getting their information online. However, we should always remember that a fair chunk of people will go to the news bulletins at 6 o’clock, 10 o’clock and 1 pm. That is really important for us. I have to commend the broadcasters and media, as they were not shy in coming to us. They played their part in ensuring that the issue got the coverage that it absolutely needed.

We do not put all our eggs in one basket. We spread the information across the various mediums of communication. It is fair to say that our online communication mediums are well used. I saw a number of people in real time trying to get information on X, Y or Z bit of road. To answer the latter part of the question, if we can get consistent advice out, that is something that we should consider to see where we can make improvements.

Stewart Stevenson

Have you looked at the French system for road vehicles, in which every auto route is covered by a dedicated traffic radio system that simply takes computer information and turns it into voice, so it is not hugely expensive, and of course, it is localised, because the one thing that virtually every road vehicle will have is a radio, and it is legal and proper for the driver to use the radio? I wonder if, before people make their journey, we should be pointing them to how they can get information during that journey. We do not want drivers sitting on Facebook or Twitter.

The Convener

A lot of committee members want to ask questions on the warning systems.

Stewart Stevenson

I have one short question after this one.

The Convener

Absolutely, but I remind members that I want to stay on the warning system at this stage. I know that there are other aspects, but we can come back to them afterwards.

Humza Yousaf

Stewart Stevenson makes a good point. To answer the first part of his question, we will look across the world and across the continent to see what we can learn. My team, including Martin Thomson, is part of the World Road Association, so they often go across the continent, and I am sure that we will invite the association here in order to learn from best practice, wherever it exists.

Whether members of my team have looked at the specific example that Stewart Stevenson mentions, I could not say without having a discussion with them, but the World Road Association certainly provides international intelligence. In fact, I think that there is an intelligent transport systems workshop today, and we will be looking to see where we can use intelligent technology to the best possible effect.

Stewart Stevenson

I go back to the planning issue. I can see that each of the participants in the public transport realm has been putting out good-quality information, but there is not an integrated place—apart from perhaps Traveline Scotland, which integrates the planning, but I am not sure that it gives the kind of real-time information that is required in those circumstances. Will the Government look at whether it is reasonable and cost effective to provide information—by that means or otherwise—in an integrated way, so that people can decide whether to go for the train or the bus, or whether to hug the sofa?

Humza Yousaf

We absolutely will. It would be worth looking at the mobile website trafficscotland.org, where you can register for a “My Traffic Scotland” account. We have made the latest enhancements yesterday and today, and you can get live images from the traffic cameras on the trunk road networks, and all the information about congestion, planned events and unplanned events. How we integrate that with the good apps that Alex Hynes has, and with the Traveline app that I know George Mair and many in the bus industry use is a question that we should take back, for sure.

Stewart Stevenson

Despite the size of my constituency, there are no traffic cameras in it—

The Convener

Let us leave it at that. I promised you one more question, but I have other members stacked up.

Richard Lyle

All vehicles lose tyre grip and traction, as Mr Mair said. Some very expensive cars cannot even get up hills because their back wheels spin and they do not have four-wheel drive. With regard to the pressure-point roads that you are talking about, where there were delays, can we look at resurfacing in some kind of material that would aid traction?

The Convener

I am going to park that question, because it is not about the warning system. We will come back to that later.

Mike Rumbles

When the minister was warning people about the red level, he consistently said, “Only travel if your journey is essential.” My question is simple: is travelling to your employment an essential journey?

Humza Yousaf

If it compromises your safety, absolutely not, but it depends what your employment is. For example, is it essential for emergency workers to travel? There are many emergency workers—but it is not all of them—for whom travel to employment would be essential. For many others, I do not view their travel as essential, particularly in this day and age when we can have a lot of flexible working and so on.

I will use my father as an example. He is a small business owner and an accountant, with 15 to 20 members of staff. I am pleased that he followed my advice—I am sure that many others did—to send staff home and give them the day off. He will have no doubt lost some income because of that decision. He would not have filed some accounts or dealt with the VAT returns that he should have done that day.

Many other small businesses chose to take a hit—we must accept that there will have been an economic impact—because the safety of their staff was paramount. I have had numerous emails from people who have told me that they were docked wages or asked to take annual leave because they did not come to work during the period of the red weather warning, which is unacceptable. As Mr Rumbles probably knows, the First Minister met the Scottish Trades Union Congress and they are developing a fair work charter.

I appreciate that the weather event was unprecedented, so some employers may not have known how to handle it—let us give them the benefit of the doubt. Red weather warnings are not given for any reason other than because people’s safety is at risk. We can imagine what it would have been like if people had travelled as normal at peak time on Wednesday evening during the red weather warning.

The indirect answer to Mike Rumbles’s question is that I do not view the travel of workers in the vast majority of types of employment as necessary, and they should not be punished for not going to work, but for some types of employment travel is essential.

Mike Rumbles

I heard and understood the messages that you put out on the radio. They were directed to the travellers—that is, of course, important—but I did not hear any message to employers that explained what you have just said.

The Convener

I am sorry to interrupt, minister, but I am very conscious of time and of the fact that a lot of members want to ask questions. I ask you to address Mike Rumbles’s point in conjunction with Fulton MacGregor’s question, if it is on warnings.

Fulton MacGregor (Coatbridge and Chryston) (SNP)

Before I ask my question on warnings, I want to raise a constituent case that I am dealing with, because we were talking about employment. We hope to resolve the issue without needing to take any further action, but the lady has unfortunately been sacked from her work for not travelling during the red weather warning.

My question is about yellow and amber weather warnings. When we gave the red weather warning, apart from some very rare circumstances such as those that I just described, the message was very clear and people got it. However, the situation between yellow and amber is a bit more difficult, as was mentioned earlier. Are there any thoughts to review that, particularly in relation to when a red warning goes down to an amber warning? I was listening to the radio in my house when we moved from red back to amber, and the radio presenter said, “We’re just back down to an amber now.” It was said in an unconscious way and he probably was not the only person who was feeling like that, because we had had the beast from the east and then we were back down to amber. Is there any chance of a review?

The Convener

I ask the minister to answer both those points, on employment and on the movement between warnings.

Humza Yousaf

We gave messages to businesses; we have a business resilience centre that contacted a number of employers. However, I accept entirely Mike Rumbles’s point that we should emphasise those messages in the future. We need to acknowledge that forecasting is not an exact science, but we will always work with the Met Office to try to improve forecasting, because the earlier we get forecasts, the earlier we can warn employers. I absolutely take that point on board.

In relation to the case that Fulton MacGregor is dealing with, he knows that employment law is reserved to the United Kingdom Government. However, the Scottish Government’s view is that it is utterly unacceptable that that practice is taking place.

Fulton MacGregor’s point about the weather warnings was a really good one, and similar to the point that Jamie Greene made. If someone is not in the position in which I am, or if they are not part of the Met Office, there is no reason for them to understand the Met Office matrix. Why would someone need to know about that on a normal day? Therefore, we had to get across to people that the weather warning due to the beast from the east was not a “pedestrian” amber. It was not an amber similar to the amber that we faced a month ago during the weather event in January. That is why I went out and talked often about a severe amber rather than a high amber, because we had to let people know that it was different from the amber warnings that there had been before, due to where it sat in the matrix.

09:15  

That is not necessarily the best system, so the answer to your question is yes, there is some learning to be had. We were very alert to the fact that, when the warning went from red to amber, people might have thought that everything was going to be okay. That is why our media messages were the exact opposite and told people that it was still going to be extraordinarily challenging.

Even going from an amber to a yellow warning or, indeed, from a yellow warning to no weather warning, we face challenges. An example concerns the routes that take people up to ski centres in Glencoe and the Nevis range. People will have seen it snowing for days and days and, when the weekend comes or at the Easter weekend, which is coming now, they decide en masse to go to the ski centres, which causes severe congestion on the trunk road network.

There is always learning to be had for us. We are always preparing not only for before the event but for after the event.

Peter Chapman

There was some criticism of HGV drivers who were supposedly on the roads doing non-essential deliveries. That criticism was unfair, in my opinion. The First Minister was involved in it as well. How did you engage with the road haulage industry prior to, during and after the severe weather with a view to maintaining essential supplies and deliveries safely?

Humza Yousaf

I will correct the member again. With respect, there was never a criticism of HGV drivers; there was a criticism of hauliers. I want the member to try to understand my sense of frustration. I am genuinely trying to be as open minded as possible about this and ask him to do the same.

Peter Chapman will be aware of what I said already. We knew in advance that there was going to be some of the most unprecedented and extreme weather in years. Our operating companies were working day and night trying to clear the surfaces—the gritters were out day and night. Our messaging went out for days to tell people to avoid travel unless absolutely essential because we know the pinchpoints, as the member already identified in a previous question. I was looking at the dozens of cameras in front of me and I saw an HGV that was at least branded for flatpack furniture drive past, skid and cause a tailback for 3 miles. I also saw home furniture or stationery deliveries—at least, that was the branding—and many empty car transporters. With the greatest respect, my public reaction to that was muted and restrained whereas I promise the member that, in the control centre, it was slightly less restrained.

I do not take away from what Peter Chapman is saying at all, but even our harshest critics will accept that there is a difference between necessary and unnecessary deliveries. I think that everybody around the table would accept that food and fuel have to get through by and large, but we have to ask questions about other deliveries. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps the HGVs were simply branded in that way and were carrying something completely different, but I am not entirely sure that that is the case.

The industry is involved. The Road Haulage Association and the Freight Transport Association, which Peter Chapman will know well, were very involved in discussions prior to the weather warning, right the way through it and afterwards. I have a good relationship with them. I am meeting them tomorrow alongside some of the large HGV companies. However, I think that even Peter Chapman would be critical of companies that send out drivers—it is about their safety as well as everybody else’s—for things that we commonly accept are unnecessary.

John Mason

As you know, minister, we are on Facebook this morning. I have been watching some of the comments. Dawn Oliver says,

“Thank you Humza for the pre warning of the possible disasters”,

so you have some fans out there. I thank ScotRail for getting me back to Glasgow on the Thursday afternoon when there were no other trains running and First for getting me from Glasgow city centre back home on the Thursday afternoon on its number 2 route, which was great.

We understand that there is a multi-agency response team and that a lot of organisations are involved in that. Should the logistics side be involved in it to try to get them on board a bit more?

Humza Yousaf

They are already involved in that activity. The Freight Transport Association, the Road Haulage Association and the Confederation for Passenger Transport are all part of the MART, and I can give you details about who else is involved.

There is an issue about how all of us can align earlier. When the red warning was announced, one of the first phone calls that I got was from Alex Hynes to say, “Look, we’re already putting in place a process for winding things down, and this is my feeling about the plans. Do you have any advice? What intelligence are you getting about the weather?” That was to ensure that everything was aligned. Of course, we have done that sort of thing previously with regard to multi-agency response, but perhaps we on this side of the table have some learning to do to ensure that, if we ever have this kind of extreme weather event again, we at a senior level sit down and co-ordinate our response even earlier. The earlier we can do things, the better it will be for everybody.

In answer to your question, though, Abellio ScotRail, Network Rail, the RHA, the FTA and the CPT are all part of the multi-agency response team.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

One of the most important pieces of information for passengers whose rail journeys, in particular, get disrupted relates to compensation. Rail companies, including ScotRail, were recently criticised by Which? for, at best, failing to make passengers aware that they were also entitled to make claims for consequential losses and, at worst, misleading the public through social media by saying that they could not make such claims. Why are the public in effect being misled with regard to their right to claim for consequential losses? Now that the national information is being amended, what is being done to make passengers aware of their full rights when it comes to compensation?

Alex Hynes

Season-ticket holders who were affected by the red weather alert have already been given two free days on renewal, while customers who do not have season tickets are eligible for delay repay compensation. Irrespective of cause, if anyone’s journey is delayed by more than 30 minutes, they are eligible for a no-quibble refund. In a typical week, we get on average 2,000 delay repay claims. However, over the red alert weather event, we were getting 5,000 applications per day. I think that we have been very clear about the compensation that our customers are entitled to, and they have been claiming it.

Humza Yousaf

All you need do is take a cursory glance at ScotRail’s Twitter feed, and you will find that it is not shy at all about telling any passenger who complains directly to it about the delay repay scheme. I do not believe that anybody is being misled. The point that Colin Smyth has made and which Alex Hynes, I and others can perhaps take away is about what more we can do to make people aware of their rights. I think that that is a fair point.

Colin Smyth

People are being misled. My question was not about the repayment of tickets but about consequential and additional losses that might be incurred—for example, through having to pay for taxis and buses—as a result of disruption. The public were misled about that recently, and the information about that has been tightened. Alex Hynes mentioned that ScotRail received 5,000 applications per day during the adverse weather event, but I presume that those claims were purely for tickets. How many people claimed for consequential losses, and what did ScotRail and others do to make the public aware that they were potentially entitled to make applications for such losses?

Alex Hynes

Every day, our customer relations team considers requests from customers to cover consequential loss. That is normal business, and where we think that such a case has been made, we pay out beyond our strict obligations.

My understanding is that the national rail conditions of carriage, which apply across the UK, have recently been reissued to address the very issue that you have raised, which I would point out was not a Scotland-specific but a UK-wide issue. I understand that that has now been addressed, but I have to say that I am not aware of any criticism from ScotRail customers that we have in any way been stingy about giving them their money back when we did not let them travel.

Colin Smyth

Would one solution be to move to a system of automatic compensation or reimbursement? Instead of your staff having to deal with 5,000 applications a day during the adverse weather, would it not be a lot simpler and easier if you provided compensation automatically, in the same way that other rail companies are starting to do?

Alex Hynes

We are certainly looking at that development. Our compensation policies are very clearly outlined in our passenger charter, which is available at every single staffed station.

The Convener

I think that we have taken that line of questioning as far as we can, so I invite Jamie Greene to ask his next question.

Jamie Greene

I will stay on the subject of rail. Mr Hynes, you said in your opening statement that feedback from ScotRail customers about the way in which things were handled was very positive. However, anyone who followed social media over those few days would have seen that there were a great number of unhappy customers, especially people who got into work by train and were then sitting in the office reading social media posts telling them that the network was shutting down. Will you briefly talk us through how and when you decided that the network would shut down entirely and how that was communicated to the general public?

Alex Hynes

Every day, we track positive, neutral or negative sentiment across social media and we can clearly demonstrate that during the red weather event sentiment about us was more positive than normal.

Our number 1 priority is safety. The forecast was accurate; it was very good. Clearly the red weather event was a threat to life and safety. My worst-case scenario was that we would have customers stranded on a train—or, even worse, stranded on a train that we could not get to. My number 1 priority was to make sure that that did not happen. Within two hours of the red weather warning being given on the Wednesday, my team and I took the decision to wind down the service in a controlled fashion. Our immediate advice to customers across all channels was to go home now. We were able to end the service about tea time on the Wednesday.

Safety was the clear priority. The decision was taken on the basis of the good weather forecasts that we got from the Met Office, and the trigger was the fact that we went to a red warning, which clearly required decisive action and good information. I was pleased to see that we did not have customers stranded on trains. We were able to get all our customers and our staff home safely that evening, which was not the case across the United Kingdom. Relatively speaking, we did a good job here in Scotland.

Jamie Greene

Thank you. You said that one of the key learnings that we can take away from this is about giving information about what is bound to happen the next day, or what is very likely to happen the next day. I point you to a ScotRail tweet from 11am on 28 February, which states:

“Following the red alert ... we will not run trains in affected areas”—

there was perhaps some ambiguity about what the affected areas were—

“until late morning”,

which in itself is a vague term,

“at the very earliest and even then, we will be introducing a small number of services if it is safe to do so.”

There are so many ifs and buts in there that it is not a huge surprise that many customers had no idea whether the trains were running until they got to the station. Can you take any learnings from that?

Alex Hynes

One of the reasons why the travel advice is not always crystal clear is that you can only communicate a plan. If you do not have a plan, there is nothing to communicate.

It is unsafe to run trains into snowdrifts, particularly if they have customers on board. We route prove each line of route, which we have to do during the hours of daylight. In a weather event such as this, we do not know what we are going to be able to run. That is why customers get the travel advice that they do. As we enter daylight and we send our route-proving trains out and reopen the railway, we are able to reinstate services where possible. However, the fact of the matter is that, the evening before, we do not know what we will be able to run, which is why we are open and honest with our customers in telling them the latest situation. It is not that we are hiding anything or keeping anything back. We do not know what we will be able to run because we do not know what is safe to run.

09:30  

Jamie Greene

Finally, has this particular event, which we acknowledge was quite extreme in its severity, led you to identify any weaknesses in the rail system in Scotland in relation to the tracks, the rolling stock or other types of stock, or indeed the equipment that you have available to you to clear lines, the level of resource that is available to you, and so on?

Are there any deficiencies in your ability to handle such extreme weather that will require beefing up before the next potential major event?

Alex Hynes

I do not believe so. We prepare for winter the whole year round. Our winter preparation plan went to our board and we were well prepared for this weather event. Indeed, we had a previous snowy event where we also performed relatively well.

Scotland’s railway is pretty resilient to bad weather, which is one of the reasons why it is more punctual than railways elsewhere in the UK. Of course, if we had a weather event every single year such as the one that we have just seen, there are decisions that we could take to make the rail network even more resilient. However, I am quite satisfied with our level of preparation and resilience. The fact that we were able to run a good service safely and that the railway in Scotland is more punctual than elsewhere is testament to our being in reasonable shape.

Clearly, if the weather was different and we faced such events every year, we might make a different decision.

Fulton MacGregor

I have a couple of questions about local authorities, and about buses in particular. In my local authority, North Lanarkshire, in the snowy weather before the red warning, there were a lot of difficulties for people trying to make it in to work and so on. We had a lot of constituent queries about it and we contacted the local authority. However, I have to say—similarly to what the minister said earlier—that the local authority was brilliant during the red warning. I do not mind saying that and I have reflected that back to the council.

What else could local authorities across the country do to improve winter service arrangements, perhaps taking into consideration the amber and yellow warning times?

Humza Yousaf

I echo what you said. Local authorities by and large coped really well and many of them took quite decisive action. For example, many of them decided the night before to let parents know that the schools were going to be closed the next day. In fact, the vast majority of local authorities did that, which made planning easier for parents, who did not have to wake up in the morning and check what was happening.

Many local authorities put in place sensible measures and did so early. There is a question around local budgets. I will not get into the politics of this—if you have not had an extreme or challenging winter for seven or eight years, it is only natural that you will probably consider reducing the winter budget and putting more money into social care, education and so on.

Because of the extent and extremity of this weather event, we triggered the Bellwin scheme, which the member will be aware of. The scheme allows for additional financial grants and assistance to local authorities.

Our mutual aid process is really important. Our priority—and, of course, the remit and responsibility of Transport Scotland and the Government—is the 3,500km trunk road network, but where we can, we offer mutual aid to local authorities. We send out gritters and give them additional stocks of salt. That offer has always been open and I am sure that a few local authorities will have taken it up. I have just been told that mutual aid was provided to South Lanarkshire Council, for example. Where we can provide mutual aid, we are absolutely willing to do so.

I echo the member’s general sentiment that the situation was well handled by local authorities.

Fulton MacGregor

This may be a question for George Mair. Is there a need for a central portal for bus service disruption information in order to get that information out, and is there anything that local authorities and other agencies can do to make sure that bus provision continues as best it can?

George Mair

Each of the operators that were resourced to deal with getting information out, particularly the larger ones—ScotRail, for example—consistently tweeted on the impact that the weather was having on whether services were winding down or winding back up. People can get services going quite quickly. It is a bit like heating a windscreen. Where the heat goes first, bus services will run quicker, but things will take a wee bit of time in outlying areas, where the snow is deeper and more difficult to clear up.

In general, operators tweeted and used social media and their websites. Most operators now have a direct feed to Traveline Scotland, on which they can put bulletins about services being reduced or reintroduced as the weather situation changes.

I try to work with Transport Scotland. I regularly have contact with colleagues in Transport Scotland, who say that they will do anything that they can to help but that inquiries should be directed to Traveline Scotland. It seems sensible to use a central point of contact like that, because Traveline Scotland gets information direct from the operators.

Given the scale of the challenge in some locations, the local authorities did a tremendous job. However, as everybody else has said, when we look back we can see that there were perhaps areas of weakness. The key thing that I would advise—I hope that local authorities will pick up on this as a result of this discussion—is that people should get round the table and have a chat so that, the next time there is a bad weather incident, things that could be done better are done better. However, given the overall scale of the challenge, particularly across the central belt and the periphery—Dundee and Aberdeen for example—people seemed to cope reasonably well. The situation was certainly challenging. However, looking back, reflecting and building new ideas and strategies for the future can only be helpful.

John Finnie

I have a question for the minister. Rail and bus passengers were well served by ScotRail and the bus operators in very challenging circumstances. You will be familiar with another two categories of traveller: pedestrians and cyclists. I appreciate that your responsibilities are separate from the obligations of local authorities, but do you believe that sufficient priority is given to pedestrians and cyclists? Ultimately, it is, of course, pedestrians who have to make their way to bus stops and train stations.

Humza Yousaf

Yes. That is one of the things that we have learned from the harsh winter of 2010, for example. I agree with John Finnie on the importance and priority of footways and cycle paths. We had 52 tractor ploughs, gritters, pick-ups and other manual clearing and gritting equipment available across Scotland’s trunk road network for footway clearance and treatment. The footways, footpaths and cycle facilities alongside the trunk road network are largely organised into three categories. When temperatures are forecast to fall, the operating companies will carry out pre-treatments of all category A footways, footpaths and cycle facilities. A combination of footpath spreaders and hand spreading will be used to pre-treat them as required. Operating companies clear category A and category B footways of snow and ice by 8 am or within two hours of snow ceasing to fall during the 6 am to 6 pm period. Operating companies clear category C footways of snow and ice by 5 pm the following week day. Obviously, operating companies allocate resources based on the network conditions and the reports that they receive from the winter drivers who have carried out ploughing.

We also have winter self-help kits, which continue to be made available to small communities that border trunk roads. It is not intended, of course, that those kits should replace normal winter maintenance, but they allow communities to play their part. Only a small number of self-help kits—20, I think—have been issued to local communities to date. The most recent was issued at New Cumnock on the A76. Therefore, there is maybe a bit of work for us to do on the advertisement of the available self-help kits.

John Finnie

You will have an obligation on a small portion of footways. There are plenty of examples of communities that have shown great resilience in coming together. However, that is not without its problems, and I would have some concerns if, for instance, members of the public were clearing footways beside main trunk roads. Is there any liaison with local authorities on that? I appreciate that it is different in this country because we have episodes of severe weather rather than constant severe weather, but some countries take a different approach. They recognise that people are very important and that if they do not have access to the roads, they will not have access to public services. Footways are seen as the poor relation. I appreciate local authorities’ obligations, but is there discussion with them about that?

Humza Yousaf

Local authorities are central to our planning, as well as to action during the event, and the recovery of access via footways is very much part of that conversation. John Finnie is right to say that footpaths sometimes do not get quite the same amount of attention and coverage in the public domain as the trunk road network and rail and bus services. I assure him that, once we get out of the winter period, that issue will be part of our overall debrief and discussion with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local authorities themselves.

Jamie Greene

Just going slightly off topic, I want to touch on the issue of the intervention by the military and armed services in this weather event, which has not cropped up in conversation this morning. Public perception is that that intervention seemed to come very late. Was there an offer of help, or was there a request to the military and armed services for help? Is there a greater role for the military to intervene in situations such as on the M80, where people were stranded for many hours? What is the relationship between the Scottish Government and the military in respect of asking for assistance?

Humza Yousaf

We have close dialogue with the Ministry of Defence throughout weather events that are planned for or foreseen, as this one was. Jamie Greene will appreciate that, in my role as transport minister, my responsibility is to ensure that transport networks across the country are moving, if it is safe to do so, during an extreme weather event. The decision to involve the MOD was made not by me but by a different minister, because, as the member will know, there was a request to assist health workers and emergency workers to get to their places of work. It was the right decision to make. Although it was a different minister who made that call, we can provide more detail, which I can do through the convener and the appropriate channels.

On the second part of Jamie Greene’s question, we always consider all the resources that are available to us, including the assistance of the MOD. If we take the example of the M80, from what I know about the equipment the MOD has, I am not entirely convinced that it would have made a huge difference, because of the nature and scale of the problem. However, we would never discount the possibility of the MOD’s assistance.

Where we could have done better—this is part of our learning—was in ensuring people’s welfare. We know that there is an issue around, for example, the M80. As soon as we started to see tailbacks during that weather event, we knew that they would not be cleared, because of the nature of the snow, and we knew within an hour or two that we would have a challenging night ahead of us. Perhaps we could have got welfare to people quicker and in a more co-ordinated way, so that is what we are taking away as one of the learning points. We would not discount a role for the MOD in that in future.

The Convener

Thank you, minister. It is perfectly obvious from today’s meeting that more lessons will come out at the end of the winter when you have carried out a complete review of the circumstances. It will useful for the committee to have feedback from you on the full details of those lessons.

I thank the minister, Alex Hynes and George Mair for coming this morning. There has been a great deal of interest in the meeting on social media and Facebook, and I thank those who were watching and those who have taken part.

09:44 Meeting suspended.  

09:52 On resuming—