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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, September 10, 2020

Meeting of the Parliament 10 September 2020

Agenda: First Minister’s Question Time, Portfolio Question Time, Scottish Parliament (Assistance for Political Parties) Bill: Stage 1, Internal Market, Decision Time


Portfolio Question Time

Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity

Good afternoon. The next item of business is portfolio questions. In order to get in as many people as possible, I offer my usual mantra: short questions and succinct answers would be a boon.

Glasgow to Edinburgh via Falkirk Rail Line (Repairs)

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the repair work being carried out on the Glasgow to Edinburgh via Falkirk rail line. (S5O-04573)

Following the severe weather last month, which led to the closure of the Edinburgh to Glasgow via Falkirk rail line, I visited the site last week to see at first hand the significant repair work that is being undertaken. Scottish Canals and Network Rail are currently undertaking the necessary repair work to the canal breach and the railway. We continue to press Network Rail to restore passenger services as quickly as possible. In the meantime, alternative transport options have been put in place, including other rail routes and replacement bus services for passengers travelling between Edinburgh and Glasgow and Dunblane.

The Glasgow to Edinburgh rail link is vital to Scotland’s economy and those living in the towns between the two cities. It is not unreasonable for people to be angry that bad weather can close the line for weeks at a time. What plans does the Scottish Government have to focus investment on making the rail line more resilient, and what discussions has the cabinet secretary had with Network Rail about ensuring that money can be directed into making the line better prepared for adverse weather?

I recognise the disruption and difficulty that the closure of the line cause for my constituents in places such as Falkirk. The member will appreciate that Scottish Canals and Network Rail have worked tirelessly over the past couple of weeks to repair the damage and the almost 1km of the main line that was swept away during the period of adverse weather. Restoring the route is a significant undertaking from an engineering point of view. I can assure the member that Network Rail and Scottish Canals are taking forward all the appropriate measures that they can.

The member might be aware that, unlike the situation for other parts of the United Kingdom network, in the high-level outputs that we put in place for Network Rail in Scotland, we specify climate change as one area for which they have to implement mitigation measures. Network Rail is already undertaking that work across the network.

Following the drop in use during lockdown, there is a real risk that passengers will stay away from rail services permanently, particularly given that the Dunblane to Edinburgh service now takes two hours each way. What steps will be taken to incentivise and promote use of rail once the repairs are complete?

The reality is that capacity on the rail network continues to be constrained, as is the case across the rest of the public transport network, due to physical distancing. As we move through the route map and the transport transition plan adapts to the stages in it, we will consider what further measures we can put in place to encourage people to return to rail and other forms of public transport. Some thought has already been given to that.

I can assure the member that we are keen to ensure that those who have to make use of public transport at the present time can do so and feel safe in doing so. Once we move to the stage where we no longer have physical distancing, we will encourage the public to start making use of public transport on a normal, routine basis.

Bus Services (Semi-rural Areas)

To ask the Scottish Government how it supports the provision of regular bus services in semi-rural areas such as Ratho in the Edinburgh Pentlands constituency. (S5O-04574)

We provide direct annual funding of around £53 million to support all bus services, including those in rural and semi-rural areas, and more than £200 million to provide free bus travel for older and disabled people. We also fund local authorities through the general revenue grant to provide additional targeted support for services to meet local needs. In 2018-19, £57 million was provided in that way.

During the pandemic, we have maintained levels of direct funding. In addition, we have committed up to £109.7 million over 20 weeks to ensure expanded services to enable people to travel safely while distancing.

Many residents and commuters in the semi-rural areas of Edinburgh in my constituency are being discouraged from using public transport following changes to the bus service provider that have resulted in an increased cost to commuters who travel into Edinburgh and within the city.

One-Ticket, which is an integrated public transport pass that has existed since 1998, could help commuters, but it is not well known—its sales represent less than one third of 1 per cent of the local bus company’s turnover. What can the Scottish Government do to help promote awareness and use of One-Ticket to the residents of rural Edinburgh?

The member will be aware that One-Ticket is an independent commercially led ticketing venture, and it is a matter for operators to decide whether they wish to make use of such provision.

The member might be aware that we are seeing ever-increasing use of contactless payment across public transport. Alongside that, the smart ticketing card has also been provided, which allows a variety of different card-based public transport ticketing options to be used on one single smart card. The smart ticketing card, which was rolled out last year, is the first of its type in the United Kingdom and can be used by all public transport operators in Scotland.

Transport Infrastructure (South-west Scotland)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of the potential benefits of improving transport infrastructure in south-west Scotland. (S5O-04575)

The south-west Scotland transport study, which concluded in January, emphasised the importance of a connected, safe, resilient and high-quality strategic transport network for the region. It recommended that 23 interventions be taken forward for further detailed appraisal in the second strategic transport projects review. By their very nature, such studies assess the potential benefits and impacts of interventions.

Work has recently restarted on STPR2. We intend to take a phased approach to phase 1, which will be focused on recommendations that will lock in the transport benefits for individuals’ travel behaviours.

Three growth deals, worth in excess of £1.4 billion, surround the south-west. However, transport infrastructure in the south-west remains woefully short of what is needed to support the south-west economy. Cairnryan—the biggest port in Scotland and the third biggest in the United Kingdom—is under threat from poor connectivity via the A77, the A75 and the rail link, and Transport Scotland has warned that the Bellfield interchange in Kilmarnock already has more traffic than it was designed for before those growth deals even get under way.

The Scottish Government’s investment in the south-west—

Mr Whittle, I am sorry, but this goes for everybody. I asked for short questions, and although we have added an extra five minutes, I will be pressed to get everybody in, including supplementaries. Please shorten your question.

I appreciate that. I am nearly there, Presiding Officer.

Investment in the south-west sits at a mere 0.04 per cent of the investment over the past 10 years. When will the Scottish Government stop the empty rhetoric that goes all the way back to a promise made by the then First Minister, Alex Salmond, 10 years ago, stop ignoring the needs of the south-west and give us the same level of investment that is enjoyed in the rest of Scotland?

That was not a lesson in how to be brief. Can you give a reasonably short answer, cabinet secretary?

As the member is aware, we have already carried out the south-west Scotland strategic transport corridor study, which has identified 23 options. Part of that includes improvements to both the A75 and the A77. I stress that that includes the A77, whereas yesterday the member’s party leader appeared to be looking for investment only in the A75 for some reason. However, I assure the member that we remain committed to ensuring that we take forward STPR2, which will see investment made in the A75 and the A77, unlike the proposal from his party leader.

I will take two brief supplementaries.

If the cabinet secretary wants, I will happily join him in a photograph of us holding a sign that says “Dual the A75 and the A77”.

The cabinet secretary said that STPR2 would be delayed. Can he confirm whether specific proposals on the A75 and the A77, or similar proposals on road upgrades, will be contained in phase 1, or will they be kicked into phase 2? That phase will take place way into 2021, and people are sick of waiting.

The member will recognise that staff who are undertaking that work have had to pivot towards dealing with issues related to the pandemic. I am sure that he will recognise that staff in Transport Scotland, local authorities and other public agencies are working extremely hard to deal with the pandemic. That has meant that some work has had to be paused, including some of the work that is associated with STPR2.

In order to make progress as quickly as possible, we are breaking the process down into two phases. The first part, early next year, will lock in some of the behavioural changes that we have seen in recent months to make sure that we build on those. The second part will come later in the year.

The member will recognise that staff are doing their very best to deal with issues related to the pandemic and, at the same time, to restart the STPR2 work, drive forward the process and drive improvement across Scotland, including in the south-west.

Has the cabinet secretary been in discussion with the United Kingdom Government in relation to additional infrastructure requirements for the port of Cairnryan after 31 December this year?

We have had no direct ministerial engagement with the UK Government on Cairnryan, despite the fact that we have raised the matter with it and despite its recent announcements about the possibility of a customs point being introduced on the Northern Ireland side. The UK Government must seek to address the issue as quickly as possible, but we have not yet received any further assurance about the actions that it intends to take.

Edinburgh-Glasgow Transport Links (Improvements)

4. Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what assessment it has made of any potential benefits of improving transport links between Glasgow and Edinburgh. (S5O-04576)

We have already invested significantly in improving transport links between Glasgow and Edinburgh with delivery of the Edinburgh to Glasgow improvement programme. An £850 million rail investment has brought the fastest journey times between Glasgow and Edinburgh city centres as well as increased capacity, with more comfortable, efficient and reliable trains, and has ensured that all routes between the two cities are electrified. In addition, the £500 million M8-M73-M74 motorway improvements project improved road journey times and reliability across central Scotland.

The second strategic transport projects review is considering what further transport investments should be made.

We have heard that there are major disruptions on the Glasgow to Edinburgh train line as we speak, and the M8 does not have the capacity to deal with increased demand at peak times. The key to increased economic activity is having transport links to support businesses and workers in the area, which is why we are calling for an acceleration of infrastructure projects, including a three-lane M8.

Those plans—

Do you have a question?

Those plans—

No, do you have a question?

Those plans, according to a Scottish Government adviser, would generate more economic growth—

A question.

—and create more jobs.

No, that is not a question.

Will the Scottish Government accept that our proposals are the right thing to do, and will it take them forward without delay?

I say to members that you are cutting other members out if you waffle on. I want crisp questions, and crisp answers from the cabinet secretary.

The key commitment for infrastructure investment that the Conservative Party has brought forward is to introduce a third lane on the M8. Introducing a third lane to the M8 would mean no money for the upgrade of the A77 or the A75, for investing in the A96 in the north-east, for completing the dualling of the A9, or for the other big strategic investments that we are making in health and education. The Conservative Party’s proposal for a third lane on the M8 has been created on the back of a fag packet. It is not the kind of investment that will deliver the change that we need across Scotland, including in the south-west, the north, the Highlands—


—and in the north-east, the east and the west. That is the reality of our approach, rather than the silly and childish approach that is being taken by the Conservative Party.

What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Listen everybody—I am trying to get through the questions.

Spaces for People Programme

To ask the Scottish Government whether it has reviewed the uses to which the spaces for people programme has been put since it was established, and whether this includes safety and cost effectiveness. (S5O-04577)

Spaces for people was established as an emergency response to the Covid-19 outbreak and is enabling local authorities to quickly implement pop-up active travel measures that support physical distancing. Local schemes are the responsibility of individual local authorities. Sustrans is offering support to monitor projects and is working closely with the Society of Chief Officers of Transportation in Scotland and Transport Scotland to deliver an evaluation of the programme. Local authorities have a legislative duty to ensure road safety in all schemes and are required to follow public procurement processes to ensure value for money.

Across Edinburgh, from the Comiston and Braid roads to East Craigs, residents have been shocked by the random, council-style temporary measures flung on to the streets of our city, leading to unsafe pavements and roads, congestion, increased air pollution, and hazards to the elderly and disabled such as floating bus stops. What will the Scottish Government do to ensure that funds that it provides are used in a less wasteful manner and for properly planned programmes for more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly spaces for people?

Proposals and schemes that are brought forward for local authorities are matters for the local authority, having gone through the process with Sustrans to secure funding for such schemes. Three broad criteria need to be met in dealing with that, and part of it includes addressing disability and access issues. Any matters relating to the schemes that the member makes reference to are for the City of Edinburgh Council.

Public Transport (Commuter Travel Safety)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to ensure that capacity on public transport allows commuters to travel safely as part of its planning for the reopening of non-essential offices. (S5O-04578)

The Covid pandemic has had a significant impact on our transport system as travel demand has fallen. That is why we have committed up to £487 million of additional financial support to date for public transport services to support operators while fare-box revenues are impacted. We have also committed a further £10 million for temporary bus priority to help ensure that public transport remains an attractive choice. Transport Scotland officials are working collaboratively with Scottish Chambers of Commerce and the Scottish Trades Union Congress to plan for safe, phased reopening of remaining offices and to inform route map review decisions.

Although today has seen a pause in moving out of lockdown, at some point non-essential office-based work will resume and we will see an increase in the number of travellers on the Fife circle which, as the cabinet secretary knows, is usually a busy peak-time service. When people return to socially distanced workplaces, will the same rules continue to apply on public transport, or will capacity be sufficient only when social distancing ends?

I recognise the issues that the member raises about the Fife circle and I also recognise that Network Rail and ScotRail have achieved significant improvements on the line in recent times. Notwithstanding that, the reality is that, while physical distancing continues to be required on public transport, capacity will be constrained. That is why we have provided offers of financial support for things such as bus prioritisation, so that local authorities can look at how they can improve the offer on public transport—on buses, in particular—to support additional capacity where necessary. However, although non-essential offices may open, we are still advocating for and encouraging businesses to support people to continue to work from home where possible, and to look at options such as staggered start and finish times to reduce transport demand at peak times.

I recognise the issues, and they are being addressed through the transport transition plan, but there will be challenges with the limited capacity on the public transport network. We are doing work to maximise capacity, but it will still be constrained. That is why businesses and others need to think about their travelling time and, where possible, support and encourage staff to continue to work from home while physical distancing must be maintained.

It is evident that public transport will continue to be impacted by the need for physical distancing, so can the cabinet secretary outline how the Scottish Government will engage with transport providers and members of the public to ensure that public confidence in public transport is maintained?

My officials meet regularly at a senior level with public transport providers, such as Network Rail, ScotRail and other bus and rail operators, to look at available capacity and its utilisation, and at whether further measures can be put in place to enable the public to have confidence in the use of public transport. I assure the member that we have taken forward a range of measures to encourage transport operators to adapt the routines of how they operate services in order to provide the public with confidence and to meet demand where necessary. As I just mentioned, we have also provided additional funding to support local authorities through the bus priority rapid deployment fund to help them to improve and increase bus services on key routes.

M74 (Noise Mitigation)

To ask the Scottish Government what discussion re noise mitigation it is having with the Scottish Roads Partnership in light of the recent publication of reports of increased noise levels being experienced by residents beside the Uddingston section of the M74. (S5O-04579)

There was a little tweaking of the wording, but it was not sufficient to make a fuss about.

My officials are continuing discussions with the Scottish Roads Partnership to understand the results of its post-construction noise survey in that area of the M74, following the M8-M73-M74 motorway improvements project. Transport Scotland has requested a full explanation from the SRP on the outcome of the survey and will provide an update as soon as possible. The matter requires to be assessed by an appropriately qualified specialist, and my officials will take independent special advice in considering whether any additional measures are necessary.

The M74 was the only motorway upgraded without noise suppression fencing and my constituents have suffered increased noise. Many trees and bushes have been removed and not replaced—or replaced with what I would call twigs. Other planting work was carried out because of my pressure on the issue. As the noise report supports my position, what more is intended to be done to reduce noise? When will the noise suppression fencing that I have pressed for previously finally be installed?

I know that challenging how the Scottish Roads Partnership has progressed some of the noise mitigation measures on that section of the M74 has been a long-standing issue for the member. I assure him that Transport Scotland is engaging directly with the SRP to interrogate the findings of the noise survey and identify what actions it will take to mitigate the difficulties that have been identified. I assure the member that we will continue to press the SRP to ensure that appropriate measures are taken on the basis of the findings of the noise survey.

Stonehaven Train Crash

To ask the Scottish Government whether it will provide an update on the Stonehaven train crash. (S5O-04580)

My thoughts continue to be with the families and friends of those affected by this tragic incident. I visited the site on Monday to show my support to those involved in the investigation, recovery works and service restoration. The site remains under the control of Police Scotland and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch. The removal of the carriages has started and will continue during the coming days. Network Rail advises that the restoration of passenger services is planned for October.

In harrowing and tragic circumstances, the railway family and all our emergency services were challenged in the extreme that day—and beyond. Their commitment and courage have been rightly noted.

Grant Shapps, the Secretary of State for Transport, met Police Constable Liam Mercer, who was one of the first on the scene. I understand that he intends to write to the chief constable of Police Scotland, recommending a commendation for his bravery and for that of PC Eilidh McCabe. Will the cabinet secretary consider writing to the chief constable in support of that recommendation?

On the day of the incident, I met PC Liam Mercer, other officers and those in the railway industry who had responded to it. I am conscious of the significant efforts that they all made and the heroic way in which they went about dealing with a complex and tragic event. I assure the member that I have already asked for measures to be taken to recognise the outstanding contribution and bravery that was demonstrated on the day by all those who responded to the tragic incident in such an exemplary way.

That concludes portfolio questions. We managed to get through all the questions again.