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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, April 4, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 04 April 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Long-term Decline in Salmon Stocks, Portfolio Question Time, Transport (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1, Transport (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Rail Freight Group (Meetings)

To ask the Scottish Government when the transport secretary last met representatives of the Rail Freight Group. (S5O-03102)

I last met representatives of the Rail Freight Group on 24 January 2019, and my officials maintain regular and constructive liaison with its representatives.

Although rail plays a major part in transporting whisky for export south from central Scotland, 100 per cent of the 1.5 million tonnes of bulk spirit moved annually from the north of Scotland to maturation sites in the central belt is carried by heavy lorries. Will the cabinet secretary perhaps explore setting up a working group to promote the transportation of food and drink by rail, similar to the proposal to form a working group on transporting timber by rail?

The member has made a very reasonable point, and I am more than happy to consider it further. He might be aware of previous attempts to encourage the whisky industry to make greater use of rail freight as an option for transporting its goods. Although there has been some take-up of that, it has not been as extensive as we would like it to be. As I am very keen to do whatever we can to encourage more businesses to look at rail freight as an option for transporting their goods, I am more than happy to consider the member’s suggestion.

Rail Passengers (Standing)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on rail passengers being charged peak fares when they have to stand. (S5O-03103)

This Government has invested £475 million in ScotRail’s fleet during this franchise, increasing the numbers of carriages from just under 800 to almost 1,050 by 2020 to meet growing demand on our services, particularly at peak times. The arrival of more new Hitachi electric trains and high-speed trains every week will allow existing refurbished trains to provide additional capacity to busier parts of the network.

I am grateful for that response, but it was not an answer to my question, which was about discounted fares.

Transport Scotland’s own definition of capacity counts overcrowding only when the carriages that are on are fewer than the number that had been planned; it does not capture overcrowding on trains that have been poorly planned from the start, such as those coming from the Borders and East Lothian into Edinburgh. Those commuters regularly face delays, cancellations and overcrowding. Will the cabinet secretary instruct Transport Scotland to properly count overcrowding with immediate effect—and if not, why not?

We take account of overcrowding on particular routes, and that is part of the present franchise agreement. The problems that the member has highlighted on particular routes on the east coast of Scotland are well recognised, and ScotRail has been left in no doubt about the need to improve services in those areas, given the significant disruption that passengers in the Borders and in Fife have experienced due to overcrowding, as well as cancellations as a result of crew training. The reasons in that respect are well documented and have been rehearsed in this chamber on a number of occasions.

The member will be aware that we issued ScotRail with a remedial notice on 24 December last year, and its remedial plan, which was published in February, has now been embedded in the franchise agreement. A key part of the plan is to address improvements on the east coast, particularly in Fife and the Borders, and I have made it clear to ScotRail that we expect that plan to be fully implemented, as a failure to do so will result in its being in breach of the franchise agreement.

Kirkliston Transport Links

To ask the Scottish Government how it proposes to improve transport links to Kirkliston. (S5O-03104)

Transport Scotland is currently taking forward the second strategic transport projects review, which will determine the rationale for future strategic transport investment across Scotland for the next 20 years. As part of the STPR, we are working collaboratively with local and regional stakeholders to understand the problems that they face and to identify regional transport priorities.

The village of Kirkliston in my constituency has doubled in size in recent years, but public transport has not improved in response to that. Huge pressure is being put on arterial routes because of car journeys into town and, indeed, on Dalmeny train station in South Queensferry, which is already overcrowded. Does the minister agree that it is time to look seriously at establishing a train station in Kirkliston, given its proximity to the train line, to give my constituents an alternative to using cars to get into the city?

Any proposal for a train station at Kirkliston would involve a process in which the local community would work in partnership with transport bodies.

I am aware that the City of Edinburgh Council is undertaking a transport study that is looking at some of the consequences in the area as a result of the Queensferry crossing. Transport Scotland has been in touch with the council to advise the council that it is happy to provide any data, or assistance with the project. Transport Scotland will consider any recommendations that come from the study and how those would feed into the STPR process.

On the member’s point about the possibility of a new train station in his area, such a proposal would have to go through the normal appraisal process, which would consider whether that was the most appropriate measure to put in place to address the transport issues that he has identified.

Fibre Networks Funding (Aberdeenshire)

To ask the Scottish Government what its response is to the decision by the United Kingdom Government to reject Aberdeenshire Council’s bid for funding from the local full fibre networks challenge fund to improve digital infrastructure. (S5O-03105)

Regulation and legislation on telecommunications is reserved and the UK Government is responsible for ensuring that Scotland’s digital infrastructure needs are met. I am concerned that bids, such as that by Aberdeenshire Council, have been rejected and that the UK Government is failing to properly fund the wider roll-out of superfast broadband coverage in Scotland.

By contrast, the Scottish Government has committed to extending superfast broadband access to every home and business in Scotland and has provided £579 million of the £600 million committed to the reaching 100 per cent programme.

Is the minister aware that Scotland received the lowest amount of any of the UK nations in the first round of £190 million funding? Aberdeenshire will receive nothing. Is he also aware that Aberdeenshire has the highest proportion of exchange-only lines—as does south-west Scotland—which creates particular requirements to update the technology so that superfast broadband can be delivered. I very much welcome the R100 programme, but UK Government money is needed, too.

I certainly very much agree with Stewart Stevenson on his latter point that we require more funding from the UK Government. Indeed, that is the conclusion of the UK Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee report on broadband, which concluded that collaboration between the Scottish and UK Governments is needed. We are, for our part, willing to do that and also to ask the UK Government to consider additional resources for that end.

UK Government digital resources are increasingly being allocated via a series of challenge funds, with the criteria apparently being who can write the best bid, rather than which areas are most in need of investment. In contrast, the Scottish Government has invested £2 million to deliver full fibre connectivity to public sector buildings in the region, helping to unlock substantial commercial investment. I can tell Stewart Stevenson that, through the £400 million digital Scotland superfast broadband programme, 24,630 premises now have access to fibre broadband and 22,460 premises have the ability to access speeds of 24 megabits per second or better as a result of our investment.

Automatic Vehicle Speed Limiters

To ask the Scottish Government what impact automatic vehicle speed limiters could have on the financial costs of speed limit enforcement. (S5O-03106)

The Scottish Government is keen to encourage and support the use of new vehicle safety technologies in our drive for safer roads in Scotland. There is no current assessment of how the future cost of speed enforcement could be affected.

We already know that spending money on rolling out, for example, 20mph zones, pays back handsomely through the reduced human and financial cost of accidents. My colleague Mark Ruskell’s member’s bill on this topic would significantly decrease the cost that local authorities face from the current cumbersome process for designating 20mph zones.

However, is it not also clear that the European Union’s decision that, from 2022, new cars will be fitted with intelligent speed assistance or automatic speed limiter technology will be a game changer, with a large majority automatically complying with speed limits and acting as pacers on the road, so that even those people who choose to override their technology will be far more likely to comply?

Does the cabinet secretary agree that the decision is extremely well timed with my colleague’s excellent member’s bill on the topic? It would save money as it rolls out over the coming years. Does that not increase the argument that the Scottish Government should throw its weight behind the bill and see the maximum number of communities benefit from 20mph zones, with all the safety and health benefits that would come from that?

Presiding Officer, I think that Mr Harvie is in favour of the 20mph bill, going by that contribution. He has left members in the chamber in no doubt in that regard. However, he made an important point. Although we welcome the automatic speed limiter technology that is to be applied to EU-registered vehicles, it is overridable, so speed enforcement will still require to be undertaken. However, the technology gives us the opportunity to make progress on ensuring that we get greater adherence to the speed limits that apply at present.

I very much welcome the contribution that Mr Ruskell’s bill has made in bringing focus to the benefits that can come from having 20mph zones. The Government supports 20mph zones and roads in the appropriate circumstances, but believes that the decisions on that should be made at a local level. Notwithstanding that, I recognise that there are some challenges in the existing regime for undertaking it and that there has been an inconsistent approach in how local authorities apply 20mph zones.

That is why we are presently undertaking work to review the traffic regulation order process, engaging with local authorities to identify what can be done to improve it and make it less bureaucratic, more timely and less costly for them and looking at what we can do with local authorities to ensure that we get a more consistent application of the use of 20mph zones across Scotland. However, given the variety of factors that need to be taken into account when applying a 20mph limit to a particular area or road, we believe that the decision is best taken at a local level, by locally elected representatives who know their communities best and can identify where it can be applied to the maximum benefit.

There is a supplementary from Jamie Greene.

I echo the comments made by the cabinet secretary about 20mph zones. It was a sensible observation of the situation. On the issue of vehicle speed limiters, the technology that is used is highly reliant on global positioning system data, for which, in much of Scotland, the signal is very weak. I ask that that is taken into account before any decisions are taken at either Scottish or United Kingdom level around the regulatory environment and that the civil service will raise that issue.

The Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, which is responsible for applying those types of standards, has already agreed that, notwithstanding the UK’s future relationship with Europe, it will apply those standards to vehicles within the UK. We will mirror those regulations when they apply.

Jamie Greene raises an important point about GPS coverage. It is similar to the issue that we have in relation to the use of connected and autonomous vehicles, because GPS is, again, an important element of their support. We need to ensure that we have maximum coverage in areas where such vehicles may be used, particularly in rural and Highland Scotland, which will have particular challenges on some of the road network. We need to consider those issues to make sure that that type of technology can be applied consistently across the whole road network in Scotland.

Ferry Vessels 801 and 802

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the construction of ferry vessels 801 and 802. (S5O-03107)

The on-going delay to the delivery of the vessels is of great concern to ministers and is, clearly, hugely frustrating to stakeholders. That is particularly so for the communities who will benefit from their eventual deployment and for the operator, CalMac Ferries. Although, from a contractual perspective, management of the contract is for Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd and Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd, Scottish ministers are closely monitoring the situation regarding delivery of the new ferries. We have concerns that FMEL’s projected delivery timescale for the Glen Sannox in June this year cannot be met, so officials have written seeking clarification on delivery timescales for both vessels.

The vessels concerned are already 13 and 19 months, respectively, behind schedule. The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee has heard that their delayed entry to the CalMac fleet is adding considerable pressure to that fleet, especially as we move into the busy summer period. Notwithstanding the dispute between the Government and the shipbuilder, many people are unclear about what is causing the delay in delivery of the vessels. When did the minister last visit the yard to see what progress has been made, and what is being done to address any issues that are causing delay? When will he update Parliament on when the two vessels will finally be delivered to the network, so that they can serve customers?

Jamie Greene has raised a number of points. I will start with my visiting the yard. I have not visited it yet, but, at the request of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, I plan to engage with members of the workforce by meeting them at Ferguson’s yard to discuss their aspirations and the Scottish Government’s plans for vessel replacements in the future. We have presence on the site from CMAL, which is the body that commissioned the vessels from FMEL on behalf of the Scottish ministers, and from Luke Van Beek, who is an independent adviser who is providing updates on the yard’s performance in delivery of the contract.

The Scottish Government is very aware of the pressure that exists on the fleet, about which Jamie Greene has made a very fair point. We have little spare vessel capacity, which means that there are knock-on impacts if a vessel goes out of service through either damage or maintenance requirements. We are working very hard to ensure that we are prepared for the summer season, and that we minimise the risk of vessels being taken out of service.

Jamie Greene has, fairly, asked about the reasons for the delay. They have previously been well rehearsed in the chamber. The difficulties are that the vessels are new ones for a yard that has been building up its workforce and is a relatively recently re-established business. We must recognise the challenges in that.

That said, we have concerns about how the contract has operated so far, although I do not want to intrude in areas in which there is on-going engagement with CMAL. Since we have commissioned the vessels from FMEL, performance on the contract has been the subject of discussion between the two parties.

I thank the minister for taking time to meet me and representatives of Arran Development Trust on Tuesday, to discuss the Glen Sannox and the Arran ferry service. The new vessel will make a hugely positive difference to the island when it enters service. Will the minister outline what measures he is taking to improve fleet resilience and reliability while work on the Glen Sannox continues?

I thank Kenneth Gibson for arranging that meeting. It was very good to hear from his constituents about their concerns, and to relay directly to them our efforts to resolve the situation.

Kenneth Gibson asked an important question about resilience. We are aware that capacity is very constrained at the moment, so we need to ensure that every vessel at our disposal is working as efficiently as possible, to minimise the risk of its going out of service. In the past financial year we have spent £3.5 million on a resilience fund, and in the forthcoming year we will spend £4 million.

The measures that we are progressing are as follows. When vessels are in dry dock we will maximise effort and do every piece of work that we can do to ensure that the vessel is prepared for the season ahead, by building on knowledge of the previous year’s operations and problems. We will tackle them all at once, thereby minimising the need for such work to be done during the summer season, which is the busiest period of the year.

We have also invested in specific areas including vibration analysis, which will consider when machinery is starting to wear out and how failures can be anticipated before they happen, and hydraulic fluid analysis, in which interesting innovation is happening.

I assure Kenneth Gibson that we are taking very seriously the need to ensure that his constituents and others are served throughout the summer season. We will do everything we can to ensure that vessels are in service.

When the minister visits Ferguson Marine, I am sure that the workforce will tell him about their frustrations about the delays, and that they, more than anyone, want the dispute over the two ferries to be resolved. When he visits the yard, will he also listen to the workforce’s calls for a national shipbuilding strategy that sets out a 30-year programme of work that would create more shipyard jobs, retain skills and expertise, encourage investment and improve the efficiency with which yards can produce ferries by creating the steady drumbeat of consistent work that Scotland’s shipyards need?

Colin Smyth has asked a very fair question on visibility of the pipeline. We are working very hard with CMAL and are now entering a period in which we will look at the next vessel replacement deployment plan in order that we can anticipate the future needs of the fleet. We are working with stakeholders, including the trade unions and local communities, to identify the needs of the fleet.

The Government is doing everything that it can, within the resource constraints that it faces, to identify opportunities for procurement. It is intended that the next vessel that we procure will be the one to service Islay, and we are keen to meet our commitment on that. However, we are looking beyond that to future requirements and we are engaging with CMAL about its expectations on vessel replacement. I assure Colin Smyth that that is very much in our mindset.

On Colin Smyth’s wider point about shipbuilding, my colleague Michael Matheson is leading on the marine strategy, which will, among other things, look at the needs of our marine fleet.

Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route (Congestion)

To ask the Scottish Government what impact the AWPR is having on traffic flow and congestion on other roads in the north-east. (S5O-03108)

Since the Aberdeen western peripheral route fully opened to traffic, on 19 February, anecdotal evidence has been overwhelmingly positive, with many social media users sharing significantly reduced journey times for their commutes.

In line with published guidance, Transport Scotland will undertake an evaluation and consider the impact of the scheme by comparing conditions at year 1, year 3 and year 5 after opening, with the forecasts that were made during the scheme design and development.

Transport Scotland has estimated that the project will cut journey times across Aberdeen by up to half at peak periods, and that it will reduce traffic flow, thereby giving opportunities for greater priority for public transport in order to speed up journeys and improve reliability.

That is also my experience.

There are infrastructure plans for dualling the A96 past Inverurie to Huntly, and a selection of route options are currently being analysed. How are the impact of the AWPR and the projected impact of dualling the railway line between Inverurie and Dyce, as well as the building of a new station at Kintore, being analysed and taken into account?

As part of the design process for the A96 dualling programme, a transport model has been developed that will cover the corridor and surrounding area. The model includes committed schemes that it was anticipated would impact on the A96, including the AWPR and the Aberdeen to Inverness rail improvement work, so the design process takes account of the forecast changes in traffic behaviour caused by those specific schemes.

Nonetheless, now that the AWPR is fully open, and after a period of settling down of traffic behaviour, I assure Gillian Martin that a traffic data collection exercise will be undertaken by Transport Scotland and a comparison made between forecast and actual performance.

The cabinet secretary will know that Transport Scotland’s decision last year to rule out dualling the A96 at Inverurie was based on data from 2017. Given what he just said about the need to use up-to-date data, will he instruct Transport Scotland to revisit that decision on the basis of new data following completion of the AWPR?

From the meeting that I had with Lewis Macdonald and the subsequent letter that I wrote to him, he is well aware of the reasons for Transport Scotland taking the options for routes that it has set down. My letter to him sets out in detail the approach that Transport Scotland has taken, and it explains the data that was used to inform the approach.

Lewis Macdonald will be aware that there are specific constraint issues about the online upgrading option. Undertaking a project of the nature of dualling the A96 results in significant disruption and challenges. Those issues have been given due consideration, and we will continue to consult on that, as we go forward with the routes that have been proposed by Transport Scotland.

The opening of the AWPR seems to have increased traffic travelling further north towards Peterhead, which raises questions about dualling the A90 beyond Ellon and the safety measures at the Toll of Birness. Does the cabinet secretary have any plans for those two vital projects?

Liam Kerr will be aware that we have started the process of establishing the strategic transport projects review—STPR—2, which will look at the wider road network in Scotland with regard to future investment choices and options. Those projects will be considered in that process.