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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Thursday, January 31, 2019

Meeting of the Parliament 31 January 2019

Agenda: General Question Time, First Minister’s Question Time, Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, Budget (Scotland) (No 3) Bill: Stage 1, Decision Time


General Question Time

Ferry Travel (Accessibility)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking to make ferry travel more accessible. (S5O-02839)

The Scottish Government is committed to improving access to ferry travel. Operators of the Clyde and Hebrides and northern isles ferry contracts provide assistance, services and equipment to enable individuals with reduced mobility to access ferry services. They continually review their service provision in an effort to reduce the barriers to travel for people with reduced mobility.

In 2014, the ferries accessibility fund was set up to support improvements in accessibility. From four rounds of the fund, we have awarded around £338,000 to a range of projects to improve accessibility across the network.

I welcome those developments. However, the minister will be aware of the widespread alarm that greeted one of the proposals in the Scottish ferries plan—namely, the proposal to increase peak-time ferry fares. A resident on Islay has told me that hiking up fares on lifeline services will serve only to discourage people from living in our island communities. What assurances can the minister give to people across the Highlands and Islands that they will not be impacted by such a proposal? More specifically, how does the proposal interrelate with the road equivalent tariff?

We recognise the concern that users of lifeline ferry services have about accessibility to services when they need them. I fully appreciate that in the region that Mr Cameron represents ferry services are vital for economic activity, as well as for social, health-related and other uses. We take such matters very seriously.

I would be happy to meet Donald Cameron to discuss his concerns about issues that have been raised directly with him. We are keen to reduce fares, as we have shown with the RET, to introduce fairness across the network and to make sure that anomalies in fares are addressed. We will continue to do that.

Can the minister advise Parliament what ferries’ car and passenger numbers were in 2007, what the corresponding numbers were last year, and to what extent the Scottish Government’s introduction of the RET has helped to improve passenger access from the point of view of affordability?

In 2007, CalMac Ferries carried 1.06 million cars, and in 2018 it carried 1.43 million cars, which was an increase of 34 per cent. In 2007, it carried 4.73 million passengers and, in 2018, it carried 5.27 million passengers, which was an increase of 11.5 per cent.

We very much welcome the growing demand for ferry services and, as I said in my answer to Donald Cameron, we are keen to keep fares as low as we can. The growing demand reflects the popularity of our islands with tourists and the success of our policy to introduce the RET. In the three years since the full roll-out of the RET, in October 2015, passenger numbers across the Clyde and Hebrides services increased by 14 per cent and car numbers increased by 25 per cent, which shows the success of the policy.

To reassure Kenneth Gibson and other members, I point out that we have commissioned a study that will estimate the impact of the RET on demand for ferry services across the network. It will also help to identify the medium-term to long-term effects of the RET in order to inform future policy decisions. We expect that research to be completed by the end of 2019.

Northern Isles Ferries (Contract)

To ask the Scottish Government what progress is being made on tendering the northern isles ferry services contract. (S5O-02840)

The invitation to tender for the next contract to run the northern isles ferry services was issued to three bidders on 17 January this year. The submission of final tender bids, which is scheduled for the spring this year, will be followed by the tender evaluation period. The new contract is due to start on 31 October 2019.

When will the minister be in a position to publish the specification for the tender, given that no one in Orkney or Shetland knows what is in it yet? Does the tender specification include any improvements on the current contract? Will the minister make it clear what the third bidding company is? We know well that Serco Group and CalMac Ferries—the minister’s choice—are two of the three companies.

We are committed to a fair, open and transparent tender process that aims to get the best deal for the communities that depend on the ferry services that serve Tavish Scott’s constituents and others in the northern isles.

It is important that the identities of the bidders remain confidential at this stage in the procurement procedure. We will be discussing the procedure with bidders in the coming weeks, following which we intend to publish the invitation to tender on the Transport Scotland website. I will make sure that Tavish Scott is made aware of its publication. We will also review whether, at that point, it would be appropriate to identify the individual bidders in order to provide the clarity that is sought by Tavish Scott.

On the point about improvements to services, after extensive consultation of stakeholders—including, I hope, elected members such as Tavish Scott, Liam McArthur and others—we have sought to provide as much flexibility as we can in the new contract in order to allow variations in services and timetables to be undertaken with greater ease than is the case under the current contract. I hope that members who represent the communities that are served by the services will welcome that.

Will the Scottish Government ensure that vessels on the northern isles ferry services are covered by collective bargaining agreements with the maritime unions? Will that be in the specifications for the contract?

I acknowledge Colin Smyth’s point. The Scottish Government tries to ensure that there are fair working practices in all procurement contracts with which it is associated. I assure Colin Smyth that we are strongly encouraging that in the ITT engagement with trade unions and other stakeholders. I will be happy, as soon as I am able, to give details to Colin Smyth about what is in the ITT on those issues, if that will be of help to him.

ScotRail Timetable Changes (Commuters’ Views)

To ask the Scottish Government how commuters’ views inform ScotRail timetabling changes. (S5O-02841)

Ahead of the December 2018 timetable change, ScotRail consulted local authorities and regional transport partnerships, which represent passengers’ interests, throughout the timetable development process.

ScotRail has adopted a new approach to the May 2019 timetable change by publishing its proposals and inviting customers to comment. We are not aware of that level of consultation having been undertaken by any other United Kingdom train operating company.

ScotRail has already made changes to its proposals as a result of responses that were received on its website, on social media and in correspondence. ScotRail will also observe how customers are using the current timetable.

Notwithstanding the national discussions that took place with passenger groups, there was really zero consultation of commuters who use the Dunblane to Edinburgh services, which led to withdrawal of the only service that could take people to Edinburgh in time for the start of the working day. What influence can the cabinet secretary bring to bear in respect of the timetable from May, in the light of the public consultation, so that it serves the needs of commuters?

Extensive consultation was undertaken from 2015 in preparation for the timetable change in December 2018. That included an independent assessment by the Tayside and central Scotland transport partnership—Tactran—of the proposed changes’ impact on passengers and customers who use the services. Although some people would have been negatively affected by the timetable changes, the vast majority of passengers benefited.

As ever, with any timetable change, the pros and cons are weighed up. An independent report verified that the choice that was made for the timetable change would benefit a greater number of members of the travelling public. ScotRail will review the existing timetable as it beds in to consider what improvements can be made when there are matters of concern. However, there will always be a level of restriction on capacity on the network in order to accommodate all passengers’ needs.

The cabinet secretary will be aware of inquiries that I have made to his office regarding the removal of a direct train service between Polmont and Stirling on the Dunblane route. He will also be aware that there is a similar issue for commuters in Linlithgow. Does he agree that ScotRail should reconsider the changes that were implemented in December, which are affecting many of my constituents, and that consideration should be given to reinstating direct services to Stirling from Polmont and Linlithgow as a matter of priority?

As I stated in my response to Mr Ruskell, there is limited capacity on the network, and a balance always needs to be struck with timetabling arrangements.

It might be of interest to Angus MacDonald that the 1.2 million journeys that were made from Linlithgow and Polmont last year were split broadly into 70 per cent to or from Edinburgh, 20 per cent to or from Glasgow, and 5 per cent to or from Falkirk and Stirling.

We need to address issues including overcrowding, improved connectivity and faster journey times, and we also need to deal with the growth in use of our rail network. That is why there is a balance to be struck by producing a timetable that meets the needs of the greatest possible number of passengers. That was the intention of the timetable change on 9 December.

However, I am aware of the concerns that Angus MacDonald and Mark Ruskell have expressed. Such matters will, of course, continue to be considered by ScotRail with regard to any future timetable changes, but within the limitations of what can be achieved on the network.

The cabinet secretary will know that timetabling changes have resulted in a wait of up to 30 minutes at Montrose. Surely if the Scottish Government cared about north-east commuters, it would have improved facilities there and sought their views before making such changes. Did it seek the views of commuters in the north-east, and when will the facilities be improved?

The member conveniently ignores the fact that we are investing £300 million in the rail network in the north-east of Scotland in order to improve connectivity in the area and that there has been a significant increase in the number of services available there.

As I have said, a consultation was undertaken on the timetable changes in 2018, and it involved a range of regional transport partnerships, including those in the north-east. Moreover, as the member will be aware, ScotRail is presently evaluating the improvements that it wants to make to Montrose station, and that work is planned to be scheduled and taken forward in due course.

As part of the timetable changes, my area was promised that there would be six-carriage trains, particularly at rush hour. However, in the months since, commuters have experienced short-form services, with three carriages appearing instead of six and passengers crammed in like sardines. I know that there is no limit on the number of passengers that ScotRail tries to squeeze on to its trains, but is there anything in the ScotRail contract about the capacity of the service?

The member will be aware that we are making significant investment in upgrading the rolling stock in the ScotRail franchise, as a result of which 70 new Hitachi trains are being introduced on to the network to provide an overall 23 per cent increase in seating capacity. Part of the challenge on some routes has been the late delivery and supply of those trains and, indeed, the refurbished high-speed trains, and that is having an impact on cascading the rest of the rolling stock across the network. Once the additional rolling stock is in place, we will be able to maximise the use of the rolling stock to address those areas where I recognise there is congestion and overcrowding on some trains. The situation is unacceptable, and it is addressed in the franchise. However, in order to address those matters, we need to get the additional rolling stock in place, and that will be taken forward in the months ahead when Hitachi supplies the rest of the trains, which were due to have been provided by now.

Congestion on the M8

To ask the Scottish Government when it last discussed congestion on the M8 between the St James interchange and Glasgow city centre with Transport Scotland. (S5O-02842)

Transport Scotland, as an agency of the Scottish Government, regularly discusses operational matters relating to the Scottish motorway and trunk road network with ministers.

The M8 between Paisley and Glasgow is the busiest stretch in the country, and Renfrewshire businesses are warning us that congestion is deterring investment. Last week, all parties voted for an amendment stating that the Glasgow airport access project—which, I should remind the cabinet secretary, is a tram-train project—must be progressed urgently. The Scottish National Party scrapped the Glasgow airport rail link in 2009; 10 years on, people do not want any more delays, reports, studies or excuses—they just want the Government to get on with it. When will the SNP deliver the rail link that it voted for last week? If it is not going to do that, will the cabinet secretary explain to businesses and people in my region why on earth not?

The motorway link at the western M8 is a key link to the airport and the rest of the west of Scotland, and we are aware of the congestion that is being caused there and the need to address it. The issue will be addressed in Scottish transport projects review 2, and I have asked officials to ensure that it is given priority.

The member will also be aware that the Glasgow airport access project team, which is led by Glasgow City Council and Renfrewshire Council, has been reviewing the evidence of the independent audit of the outline business case for the tram-train link to Glasgow airport. It has identified a number of outstanding issues that will cause real challenges in delivering such a project, but it has now said that its preferred option is a personal rapid transit service, and that will be presented to the Glasgow city region deal cabinet in the coming weeks as part of its consideration of how to take forward the outline business case for the proposal.

Glasgow Airport Access Project

With a degree of optimism, to ask the Scottish Government when work will begin on the Glasgow airport access project, and how it will ensure that it is delivered as outlined in the business case. (S5O-02843)

The Glasgow airport access project is one of the projects that are identified in the Glasgow city region deal and it is being taken forward by Glasgow City Council and Renfrewshire Council. As such, responsibility for the delivery of the project to improve surface access to the airport sits with those councils.

The Scottish Government remains committed to working with partners to find solutions to improve surface access to Glasgow airport. As part of that commitment, I chaired the Glasgow airport access executive steering group yesterday. At the meeting, the group heard how the project team has considered issues that were raised in the independent audit of the project’s outline business case. I was pleased to hear that the Glasgow city region deal recognises the issues around current and future rail services, which would be compromised as a result of the project in the outline business case. Therefore, the project team is seeking to progress its preferred option of a personal rapid transit system and the outline business case for that will be developed by the partners.

I cannot tell the cabinet secretary how dismayed I am by his response. He may be pleased but, last week, the Parliament, including the cabinet secretary, voted for urgent progress on the deal and the plan, as outlined in the business case. I do not know how he defines urgent, but what he has described is not urgency. Who is putting a block on the proposal? The money is there, the plan is agreed by the partners, the project is recognised as having social, economic and environmental benefits for Glasgow and the west of Scotland, but it is still not going to happen. Will he commit to act on the position that he voted for last week in the interests of the people of Glasgow and the west of Scotland? Will he change his decision and go back to the proposal that had the unanimous agreement of the city deal partners?

We have acted on the outcome of last week’s vote. As I mentioned, at the meeting yesterday, the project team set out that it will take forward a business case for a PRT system. As the member will be aware, an independent audit of the outline business case was carried out, which highlighted a number of significant issues, in particular constraints at Glasgow Central station and the potential impact on services to Inverclyde, Ayrshire and East Kilbride. The rail link would have resulted in a reduction in, or a detrimental impact on, those services and would have prevented the enhancements that we intend to provide to them. Therefore, because the issues could not be addressed through the outline business case, the city deal partners have identified a PRT system as the preferred option that they intend to take forward.

The first feasibility study for the airport access project was done when I was 10. Airport passenger numbers are set to double in the next 10 years, and the number of people who work on site is set to increase to around 40,000. It is simply inconceivable that those numbers can be achieved by relying solely on the M8, which is already heavily congested. Does the cabinet secretary think that the rail link will realistically be built any time soon?

In relation to the member’s first point, I recognise that there is congestion on the M8 to the west of Glasgow. That issue has to be addressed—it will be progressed by Scottish transport projects review 2 and I have asked that the matter be given consideration as a priority. I would be interested to hear whether the member is content with the idea of a tram-train link to Glasgow airport that would result in a reduction in services for his constituents in Inverclyde and Ayrshire and for people in East Kilbride, because of the limited capacity at Glasgow Central station. We have to take a whole-system approach in addressing these issues and we should not look at them in isolation. We have been taking that approach when working with the partners on improving surface access to Glasgow airport. The issues have been recognised, and that is why we will now take forward a PRT system as the preferred option to improve connectivity at the airport.

Does the cabinet secretary agree that my constituents in Greenock and Inverclyde will be shocked and disappointed to hear that the Labour Party is campaigning for them to have a worse service as a consequence of the Glasgow access rail link?

The reality is that there is limited capacity—[Interruption.]

Order, please. Let us hear the cabinet secretary.

There is limited capacity on the line from Paisley Gilmour Street to Central station. Even with enhancements, the rail link would result in a detriment to services to places such as Inverclyde, Ayrshire and East Kilbride and potentially to services on the Shotts line as well. Significant enhancements are planned for those routes, given the demand on them. That is why the independent audit of the outline business case has identified those issues that need to be addressed and that is why we now propose to take through a PRT option, which will improve connectivity to the airport while allowing us to increase capacity for those other key areas where there is ever-growing demand for rail services.