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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 23 April 2019

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Social Security and In-work Poverty, Committee Announcement, Business Motion, Parliamentary Bureau Motions, Decision Time, Open University at 50


Contents


Topical Question Time


Rail Services

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is regarding the performance of Scotland’s rail services, and what action is being taken to improve provision. (S5T-01605)

The on-going train cancellations and capacity challenges in the east of Scotland, particularly across Fife, are unacceptable to the Scottish Government and passengers alike. I have made that very clear to Abellio ScotRail and to Abellio’s Dutch Government owners, whom I met recently. I stressed that action must be taken immediately to reduce the level of train cancellations and complete the driver training programme for the new and refurbished trains.

Transport Scotland officials are in daily contact with ScotRail senior management to monitor closely the training programme and review anticipated train cancellations. I will meet Alex Hynes tomorrow and I will seek further assurances that there is a strong focus on improving performance in the east of Scotland.

As the cabinet secretary pointed out, there has been a particular problem in Fife over the past few weeks. I have been contacted by many angry constituents, who have raised concerns about the level of service cancellations. Between 4 and 6.30 pm on 16 April, no fewer than five Edinburgh to Fife services were cancelled at the peak commuter time. That led to what one constituent described to me as “unsafe overcrowded conditions” on one of the other trains.

ScotRail claims that the cancellations are the result of staff training, but is there any other provider of a public service that thinks that the only way in which it can train staff is by cancelling the services that are available to the public and making the public unsafe as a result? Surely that is not acceptable behaviour.

As I have said in the chamber on a number of occasions in recent times and at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee when it considered the remedial plan, at present, ScotRail’s performance in relation to cancellations, particularly in areas such as Fife, is unacceptable. A remedial notice was issued because of the level of cancellations on the Fife route, and I fully expect ScotRail to implement all the actions that are set out in the remedial plan, which are now part of the franchise agreement, to ensure that we start to see improvements being made.

Murdo Fraser will be aware that ScotRail finds itself in its current situation on training for a variety of complex reasons, including the late arrival of the refurbished and the new rolling stock and issues in relation to the way in which staffing and crew levels have been managed in the east of Scotland. Notwithstanding those issues, the situation is unacceptable, which is why ScotRail was issued with a remedial notice. I expect it to fully implement the relevant measures so that passengers in the Fife area and across the country as a whole see the benefits of the significant investment that we are putting into rail in Scotland.

I thank the cabinet secretary for that further information, but my constituents are fed up hearing excuses. We have been told for weeks, if not months, that services will improve but, in fact, they are deteriorating. One month ago, the First Minister said in the chamber that ScotRail was drinking in “the last chance saloon”. When will the Scottish Government call last orders on ScotRail?

As the member will be aware, the remedial plan contains a timeline for each of the actions that ScotRail must take, including the recruitment of additional drivers and conductors and the completion of the training of staff. The training of staff, which is a key aspect of the situation that is having an impact on commuters in the east of Scotland, is due to be completed for the timetable change on 19 May. In its engagement with ScotRail, Transport Scotland has been given assurances that ScotRail still expects to complete the training programme within that timeframe. That will provide greater resilience in the east of Scotland, as a result of which passengers will see some improvements.

However, the wider improvements in the east of Scotland will not be realised until the additional high-speed trains have been deployed on the network and the new Hitachi 385 trains have been introduced more widely, which will allow for additional diesel rolling stock to be moved to the east of the country. That will be effected by the timetable change in December of this year, which should produce significant benefits for the east of Scotland.

Notwithstanding that, in the short term, the actions that ScotRail is taking are focused on making sure that improvements are delivered in the east of Scotland. Through my officials and my engagement with ScotRail, I will make sure that it maintains its focus on that issue.

Eight members wish to ask supplementaries; I imagine that they are from different parts of the country. We will try to get through as many as we can.

At tomorrow’s meeting with Alex Hynes, I ask the cabinet secretary to raise the issue of the cancellations on the Borders railway on Easter Sunday, when 15 scheduled train services were cancelled. That was another raw deal for my constituents, as a result of which Newtongrange mining museum, Melrose and its abbey and even Abbotsford will undoubtedly have lost potential tourists.

I come back to the last chance saloon. Forget last orders—how close is ScotRail to the exit door of the last chance saloon?

As I made clear at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, if only one aspect of the remedial plan is not implemented and fulfilled by Abellio ScotRail, it will be in default of the franchise agreement, which could result in the franchise being removed from it.

Like the cancellations that Murdo Fraser referred to, the cancellations that Christine Grahame mentioned were of an unacceptable level. The reasons that ScotRail has given involve a combination of staff leave and staff not taking up rest-day working. That is why it is important that ScotRail recruits additional drivers and conductors, which is a key commitment in the remedial plan. It will take time for that to be delivered, but it is important that ScotRail continues to make progress and seeks to address the issues as quickly as possible so that we ensure that the experience that Christine Grahame’s constituents had on Easter Sunday is not repeated in the future.

With 27,000 cancellations in the past year, the ScotRail service has become a shambles and a national embarrassment. Passengers are sick of and fed up with the delays and cancellations that affect their daily lives. Meanwhile, the Government and the cabinet secretary sit on their hands. Is it not time for the cabinet secretary to step in, strip Abellio of its contract and put in place a publicly owned rail service that puts passengers first?

I am surprised by Mr Kelly’s question because, as Mr Kelly is aware, we do not have the power to set up a public sector rail service here in Scotland. That matter is reserved to the United Kingdom Government. I hope that we now have the support of the Labour Party in Scotland for changes to the railways legislation that would allow us to look at a whole range of models for delivering our rail services here in Scotland, including the public sector option, which the Labour Party believes is the main way in which to address these matters.

I certainly hope that Mr Kelly’s question is an indication that we have the Labour Party’s support for the full devolution of railway powers to the Scottish Parliament to allow us to have that opportunity. When we are in that position, we will certainly look at taking forward what we think is the best option for Scotland’s railways.

Can the cabinet secretary tell us exactly how many qualified train drivers ScotRail is short of? What are we going to do in the short term to ensure that these trains can run properly?

ScotRail’s remedial plan sets out that it is recruiting an extra 55 new drivers in order to address the current shortfall. ScotRail is undertaking that piece of work at present and it is currently advertising and recruiting. Alongside that, it is training some of its current drivers so that they can operate additional fleet. Those who are already trained for a particular fleet are being trained to operate other trains in order to provide greater resilience within the existing complement.

Alongside the 55 drivers that ScotRail is recruiting for the whole of the network, with a specific focus on the east, it is recruiting some 30 additional conductors, who will be in place by July of this year. The commitment that ScotRail has made is being delivered through funding from Abellio ScotRail directly. Those are the figures that ScotRail believes that it needs to address the existing shortfall and to give it the resilience that it requires within the existing complement of staff, alongside the additional training programme that it has in place for its drivers and conductors.

Can the cabinet secretary indicate what percentage of delays over the past year are attributable to the Tory Government’s shambolic operation of Network Rail?

Members will be aware of some significant challenges in the east of Scotland, which have been due to infrastructure failures—particularly just outside Haymarket. Some of the failures have been repeated. I have raised the failures with Network Rail, asking it to assure me that it is not only repairing those particular faults but making the infrastructure investment that is necessary to minimise the risk of these types of problems occurring again, because they have caused significant disruption to the network, particularly in the east of the country.

Overall, in the course of the past 12 months, some 65.5 per cent of all delays on our network have been due to infrastructure failures. As I have said in this chamber and at committee on a number of occasions, it is critically important that both parts of our rail network—Network Rail and the ScotRail franchise—are operating to the best of their ability to deliver passenger services. That is why it is important that we have overall control of both aspects of the rail system in Scotland, to ensure that we are running it in a way that reflects the needs of the people of Scotland.

I am sure that the cabinet secretary can now be in no doubt about the appalling service that Fife commuters are experiencing. The most that Fifers have been promised by ScotRail is that peak-time services will return to normal—just to normal; they will not be improved—as a Christmas present. This franchise cannot continue, as people are persistently late for work, and the economic impact on Fifers must not be undervalued. Does the cabinet secretary recognise that and will he reconsider the need for a fares cut in Fife to compensate for this terrible service?

I recognise the impact on services in the Fife area, which is the very reason why we issued a remedial notice to ScotRail. It is also why, in the remedial plan, ScotRail set out the range of actions that will be taken to address the issues that are affecting Claire Baker’s constituents.

There is still real misery for commuters in my region of Mid Scotland and Fife. When they go to work and come home, they do not call it the rush hour; they call it the crush hour, because individuals are crammed into trains that have fewer carriages and that are delayed, if they are not cancelled. What reassurances can I give to my constituents that the situation will improve? At the moment, they see nothing but the situation getting worse and worse on a weekly basis.

We have been pressing ScotRail to ensure that it uses all the rolling stock that it has available. Particularly in the east of Scotland, the biggest impact on the ability to deliver the additional rolling stock that is needed is the late delivery of the high-speed trains—HSTs—from Wabtec and the late delivery of the 385s from Hitachi. That has had an impact on the ability to move the diesel rolling stock over to the east of the country. Once the new rolling stock is in place, that will free up the diesel rolling stock and allow it to be moved.

At present, approximately 11 of the high-speed trains are in place. In the coming months, the utilisation of those trains will free up the diesel rolling stock to allow it to be moved into the Fife area, which will provide additional carriages for passengers and deal with the overcrowding problems that are being experienced. The electrification of the Shotts line into Glasgow frees up diesel rolling stock, because we can now use class 385 electric trains on that route. When we have the full complement of those from Hitachi, which it now says will be by August of this year, that will free up diesel rolling stock from the area that can be moved to the east of Scotland—the Borders and Fife—to provide the additional rolling stock that is necessary.

A cascade of rolling stock is taking place, but it is being delayed, and that is having an impact on passengers’ experiences in the way that the member rightly highlights. That is in part due to the delays in some of the new rolling stock coming in to allow the diesel rolling stock to be freed up to move to the east of the country.

To what extent does the cabinet secretary hold Angel Trains and its contract with Wabtec accountable for the utterly and desperately bad delivery of the HSTs, with two delivered in December when 17 were contracted to be refurbished by that date?

As I mentioned, there is absolutely no doubt that the late delivery of the HSTs has had a significant impact on ScotRail’s ability to move some of its other rolling stock—the 170s in particular—to the east of Scotland, which is having an adverse impact on passenger experience in that area. I have discussed the matter with the chair and chief executive of Angel Trains and with the global president of Wabtec in the United States, and I said that the delay is unacceptable. They provided me with assurances that they are doing everything that they can to try to move the issue forward. Some of the work is being transferred to Kilmarnock to try to speed up the refurbishment that is due to be undertaken on the high-speed trains.

There is no doubt that the delay with the HSTs is having an impact, as is the late delivery of the Hitachi 385s. I raised that issue when I discussed the matter with the global head of Hitachi in Japan and made it clear that it is unacceptable that we are experiencing on-going delays in the delivery of that brand-new rolling stock.

All those issues are having an impact on passengers’ experience of what is a significant level of investment in our railways in Scotland. I want the benefits of that additional investment to be realised sooner rather than later, and those companies all have a part to play in ensuring that they deliver the trains as quickly as possible so that passengers get those benefits.

The problem is not confined to the east of Scotland. Performance in parts of the west of Scotland is at a record low. In March, 56 per cent of trains arrived on time in Dumbarton. In Balloch, the figure was 48 per cent and in Helensburgh it was 42 per cent. For the avoidance of doubt, that is nothing to do with the training of staff or new rolling stock. When the trains show up, they are short formed, with three carriages instead of six. When will we see a marked improvement in the Helensburgh and Balloch lines?

On the specific issue, I will ask ScotRail to provide a direct answer to the member on the improvements that will be made on those lines. The member will be aware that the Donovan review set out a range of measures that have to be implemented to improve services in the west of Scotland.

On some routes we have seen marked improvements as a result of such measures; on others, we have not seen their full realisation, because not all the recommendations of the Donovan review have been implemented yet. The position is being monitored by the Office of Rail and Road, which has said that although ScotRail is making good progress, there is still more to do. I expect to see the recommended infrastructure and timetable improvements starting to deliver better and more reliable services in areas of the west of Scotland. However, as I have said, I will ask ScotRail to provide Jackie Baillie with a detailed response about the specific line to which she referred.

The cabinet secretary and I have discussed many times the situation at Dalmeny station, which is in my constituency and is, quite possibly, the one that has been worst affected by the ScotRail crisis. Just after Christmas, part of the problem with train cancellations was mitigated by placing additional stop orders on rush-hour services that were coming south from Aberdeen. Several times, I have challenged ScotRail to place similar orders on Aberdeen-bound trains that leave Waverley in the evenings, but those have still not been forthcoming. What pressure can the cabinet secretary apply to ScotRail so that we will see such advanced stop orders being applied?

When I meet Alex Hynes tomorrow, I will ask him to address that very issue and to respond to Mr Cole-Hamilton on the specific point that he has raised.

I thank the cabinet secretary and members for getting through questions from 10 members.