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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Meeting of the Parliament 04 December 2018

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Topical Question Time, Thyroid and Adrenal Testing, Diagnosis and Treatment, Veterans, Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill, Point of Order, Decision Time, Autistic Children’s Experiences of School


Topical Question Time

ScotRail Performance

1. Murdo Fraser (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on ScotRail’s performance. (S5T-01371)

The Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity (Michael Matheson)

ScotRail’s performance is clearly not where it should be, and I raise that matter regularly—and I have done so recently—with Alex Hynes, who is the managing director of the ScotRail Alliance.

The level of cancellations that are being caused by the rest day working dispute is unacceptable, and I call on the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and ScotRail to resolve the dispute without further delay. The impact of ScotRail’s continued training of staff to deliver the coming timetable changes is equally unacceptable.

The planned changes will deliver the first phase of this Government’s programme to significantly improve services across much of the Scottish rail network through our record investment in infrastructure and rolling stock. It is very disappointing that passengers are bearing the brunt of the late arrival of the new trains and the knock-on impact on training schedules, and the situation is being exacerbated by the industrial dispute. I will be making that very point when I meet Mr Hynes later today.

Murdo Fraser

I am sure that I am not the only member in the chamber to have been contacted by angry constituents following this weekend’s disruption, to which the cabinet secretary referred, when there was a large number of cancellations and many passengers were left stranded. The RMT has claimed that the overtime ban has aggravated the situation. Whatever the reason, the travelling public should not be the victims. We keep being reassured in the chamber that things will get better. When will that be?

Michael Matheson

I certainly recognise the concerns of the member’s constituents—my constituents have the same concerns—about the challenges, particularly over the past few days, as a result of a combination of the training programme for the new class 385 trains coming in and the on-going industrial dispute.

The member will be aware that significant investment has been made in providing new rolling stock, and new electric trains will enhance the services across many parts of the Scottish network. The new timetable comes into force as of 9 December, with the new rolling stock that is being provided by Hitachi. That will allow the remaining rolling stock to be cascaded to other parts of the network, including Fife. Alongside that, further improvements will be made to the timetabling next May, and the full programme will be completed by next December. That will increase the number of seats and the rolling stock available and improve the timetabling of services across the country.

I recognise passengers’ frustrations over the difficulties in recent days in particular. Our considerable investment in rolling stock and infrastructure will deliver improvements as we make the timetable changes, which start at the end of this week.

Murdo Fraser

The cabinet secretary will be aware that rail fares are due to rise by an average of 2.8 per cent from the new year. On top of that—to add insult to injury—ScotRail is proposing to scrap free travel for children as from January. I am sure that passengers would not mind paying higher fares if they were getting an excellent service, but they are not. When the cabinet secretary meets ScotRail and the RMT, will he put a rocket under them both and tell them to improve their performance?

Michael Matheson

The ScotRail Alliance is in no doubt about my views on its performance to date; when I meet the ScotRail Alliance’s MD this afternoon, he will be in no doubt about my views on its performance in the past couple of days in particular.

I call on the RMT and ScotRail to get round the negotiating table and settle the matter sooner rather than later, to make sure that we put passengers first.

It should be recognised that the fare increase, which I know is unwelcome, is the lowest increase in the United Kingdom, because of the rail fare cap arrangements that we have in Scotland. Almost two thirds of the cost of the railway network in Scotland is met by the Scottish Government. That is more than any other part of the UK provides. The Scottish Government provides a considerable level of resource to minimise the fare increase, although I recognise that any increase is unwelcome.

All members can be assured that the ScotRail Alliance is in no doubt about my views on its performance to date; I will be making that point again to it this afternoon.

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

Nine members have requested to ask supplementaries; I ask members and the cabinet secretary to bear that in mind. There is time in hand so, if members’ questions are brief and if the cabinet secretary is equally succinct, we will get through as many questions as possible.

Bruce Crawford (Stirling) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary understand my constituents’ concerns about the service that they are receiving on the rail network? They are experiencing cancellations, overcrowded trains, inconvenient timetable alterations and a lack of information at stations on late changes. So that they can go about their daily business, they want the situation to be sorted out, and they want to know when that will happen. What more can the Scottish Government do to put pressure on the rail network operators to improve matters by the earliest possible date?

Michael Matheson

Mr Crawford has raised a number of factors. He will be aware that electrification of the line into his constituency has just been completed—the testing of the line was completed last week—for the introduction of the new 385 trains, which will improve the capacity and reliability of the service for his constituents.

The communication issues that Mr Crawford mentioned have been raised with ScotRail, and my officials and Transport Scotland will continue to raise them so that ScotRail improves its communication with the public.

I assure the member that we will continue to ensure that ScotRail and its partners are doing everything possible to improve the services that they offer to the travelling public. He can be assured that I will impress that on ScotRail when I meet it later this afternoon.

Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

The cabinet secretary will be aware that ScotRail has announced plans to scrap the popular kids go free scheme, under which up to two children can travel for free with an adult on Scotland’s railways. Does he recognise that that short-sighted move will make our public transport less accessible and risk pricing families off our trains? Will he condemn the move by ScotRail’s bosses and join me in signing Labour’s petition to call on ScotRail to think again?

Michael Matheson

I will give signing the petition a miss, but I understand the concerns of the public, which the member described, about the removal of the kids go free promotion. That is a commercial product that it is in ScotRail’s hands to choose to implement; it has chosen to change its arrangements. ScotRail has said that more tickets will be available for children to travel for £1 under the new scheme than have been available under the kids go free promotion.

As I said in response to Murdo Fraser, we do a considerable amount to cap price increases in Scotland. Because of the considerable investment that the Scottish Government puts into ScotRail, the fare increase in Scotland is the lowest of any part of the UK.

Christine Grahame (Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale) (SNP)

I will add to the ScotRail list. I advise the cabinet secretary that I wrote to Alex Hynes because of increasing complaints from my constituents about overcrowding on the Borders railway in the Borders and Midlothian. That mostly happens in the rush hour, but it also occurs when the rugby is on at Murrayfield, which I would have thought could be anticipated. Even as I came into the chamber this afternoon, a constituent told me that the 11.30 from Tweedbank was cancelled because of a lack of crew.

Will the cabinet secretary draw those points to Alex Hynes’s attention when they meet this afternoon? Will he ask Alex Hynes when there will be enough carriages on the Borders railway? I will follow through on the cancellation.

Michael Matheson

I am more than happy to raise that question with Alex Hynes when we meet this afternoon. I emphasise that the new Hitachi 385 rolling stock that is coming in will increase capacity on the rail lines, which will allow more seats to be available on the Borders railway, particularly at peak times.

Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

Last night, I hosted meetings in Dunblane and Bridge of Allan, where hundreds of my constituents were raging at the inconvenience that the timetable changes will cause them. Meanwhile, my constituents in Fife will see none of the promised improvements to evening services. Why have communities not been consulted about the new timetable? When will the promised new rolling stock be delivered on the Dunblane and Alloa lines? Why are communities in Fife being left behind again?

Michael Matheson

The timetabling matter, which Network Rail is taking forward, has been in process for the past two years and has involved a range of engagement across different parties and stakeholders.

As I said, the 385s are coming into service—some are in service, but additional ones are coming into service daily. The electrification of the line to Dunblane will allow the 385s to operate there, which will increase capacity to Dunblane. That will come into play with the timetable change on 9 December.

Richard Lyle (Uddingston and Bellshill) (SNP)

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments. What percentage of the recent delays have been Network Rail’s responsibility? Will the cabinet secretary join me in calling on all parties in the chamber to campaign for Network Rail to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament?

Michael Matheson

There is absolutely no doubt that ScotRail’s infrastructure has had a significant impact on its performance. Members have only to look at the figures for the most recent four-week period that has been recorded, which takes us up to 10 November, in which 59.5 per cent of delays on the ScotRail network related to Network Rail. That is unacceptably high.

I welcome the fact that, last week, the Office of Rail and Road decided to take action against Network Rail because of its poor performance and the impact that that is having on passenger services. There is no doubt in my mind that, in order to address such issues, we need to align more effectively the providers of both rolling stock and infrastructure. In Scotland, the best way of achieving that would be to devolve Network Rail so that it would be responsible and answerable to this Parliament.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

New timetable changes will put my constituents who use the Dunblane to Edinburgh and Dunblane to Glasgow routes at a real disadvantage, with the loss of peak-time trains. How can that be justified to hard-working commuters, who will eventually pay more in order to get less?

Michael Matheson

Alexander Stewart will be aware that in order to ensure that we can deliver on the enhancements that will be brought about by the new timetable across the country, changes are being made in areas such as Dunblane; a key part of that is to improve the infrastructure in that area. That is why the line has been electrified up to Dunblane. That is a significant investment, which will allow the new Hitachi 385s to operate on that line, increase capacity and provide greater resilience there.

Joan McAlpine (South Scotland) (SNP)

The cabinet secretary will know that many commuters in my constituency rely on the TransPennine Express service from Lockerbie to the central belt. However, according to the latest performance data, two out of every three TransPennine trains on its Scotland route were either late or cancelled, and the trains that ran were overcrowded. Even short delays can be catastrophic, as many commuters need to make a ScotRail connection at Carstairs, which will not wait for delayed TransPennine trains.

I know that that service is regulated by the Department for Transport in London, but can the cabinet secretary do anything to persuade Chris Grayling to take action and to put a rocket under TransPennine?

Michael Matheson

I am aware of concerns around the performance of the TransPennine service. Its public performance measure is at 71.65 per cent for the latest period, which was from 14 October until 10 November. That shows a marked deterioration over the past year. The concerns that Joan McAlpine has raised are a matter for the Secretary of State for Transport and the Department for Transport in London but, of course, I will pass them on. Some of my constituents have also raised concerns about the reliability of that service and its poor punctuality.

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab)

In recent weeks, the rail service in Fife has been terrible; the reason given has been crew shortages. My constituents are losing confidence in Abellio ScotRail to deliver the service that Fife deserves and for which it is about to pay more. Does the cabinet secretary recognise that, just a few weeks ago, the chamber heard a debate in which the Government and back-bench Scottish National Party members told us that the service was fine? Does he agree that such poor performance cannot continue and that the contract with Abellio ScotRail should be broken as soon as possible?

Michael Matheson

I have recognised that the level of service that is being provided at present is not acceptable and that ScotRail and Network Rail need to take action to address the issues. The Donovan review set out a range of measures that will help to improve resilience in the Fife area. The new rolling stock that is coming in will allow a cascade of other stock to go out to the Fife lines. For example, where there are four carriages at peak times at present, that will increase to six. It will also increase capacity at off-peak times. The ScotRail Alliance has also given an undertaking to review the existing timetable to see how it can improve it further in future.

However, I have no doubt that the level of performance that passengers on the Fife line have experienced is not to the acceptable standard, which is why action needs to be taken to address such issues.

Jenny Gilruth (Mid Fife and Glenrothes) (SNP)

When he meets ScotRail’s representatives this afternoon, will the cabinet secretary request an update on the 4.34 pm ScotRail service from Edinburgh to Perth, which calls at Markinch, and which in September was reported as being Scotland’s most overcrowded train, having just two carriages and running at 136 per cent of planned capacity?

Michael Matheson

I will ask ScotRail’s representatives to provide Jenny Gilruth with that information.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

Last week, on leaving Uphall station, a train left half the carriages and half the passengers at the station as the rest of the train sped off to Helensburgh. The situation on the railway is rapidly becoming “Carry On ScotRail”, without any of the laughs. We have had delays, cancellations and rising fares, and now children are to be charged and trains are separating at stations. When is this shambles going to end?

Michael Matheson

I am sure that the member recognises that people who work in the ScotRail and Network Rail organisations work very hard to provide the best service possible. I fully recognise that.

The incident to which the member referred is being investigated by the ORR, because it came about as a result of technical failings in the train. There are failsafe systems that should have prevented that from occurring. We must await the outcome of the ORR’s investigation into the matter.

The Presiding Officer

I thank members and the minister for getting through so many questions.

Cairngorm Mountain Ltd

2. Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

To ask the Scottish Government what action it is taking in response to Cairngorm Mountain Ltd entering administration. (S5T-01369)

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy (Fergus Ewing)

The Scottish Government, under my direction as Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy, is doing everything possible to ensure that Cairn Gorm remains open for business. Highlands and Islands Enterprise is the lead agency, and it is working with administrators to achieve the optimal way ahead. We have lodged funds with the administrators to ensure that staff continue to be paid throughout the administration process.

Rhoda Grant

I welcome the fact that the staff, who are extremely concerned about their future employment prospects, will continue to be paid.

The community has in the past raised concerns about the running of the ski resort by Cairngorm Mountain Ltd, and it is keen to look at a community buy-out for the asset. Has the cabinet secretary spoken to the administrators about a community bid to take over the asset? Has he offered the community help to pull such a bid together?

Fergus Ewing

As I believe that the member knows, a funicular response group was set up by HIE to improve awareness and communication between the parties. The group, which is chaired by the convener of Highland Council, has community representatives on it. The members include the Aviemore and Glenmore Community Trust, the Aviemore Business Association, the Cairngorm Mountain Trust, the Cairngorms Business Partnership, HIE and others. The objective—which, of course, we all share—is to ensure the continuance of skiing operations at Cairn Gorm, because that is central to the success of the economy in Aviemore, Badenoch and Strathspey.

We are working with the community to ensure the outcome that everybody wants. HIE and individual officers with whom I have worked closely over a long period are working extremely hard to ensure that that objective is successful.

Rhoda Grant

I urge the cabinet secretary to consider community ownership of the asset in question, which he agrees is of benefit to the whole of Badenoch and Strathspey.

Does Cairngorm Mountain owe HIE money, either as a result of financial assistance or depreciation of the asset while it was under the company’s management? If so, what steps are being taken to recoup that money?

Fergus Ewing

HIE will always seek to secure implementation of obligations owing to it and liabilities due to it. I am happy to provide Rhoda Grant with an assurance that we will continue to work with community representatives. That process has been going well. I am very pleased that HIE has made a signal investment of £1 million in snow-making technology and other apparatus, with the aim of ensuring that visitors can continue to enjoy Cairn Gorm this winter and that Scotland remains the attractive snow-sports destination that it is.

The Presiding Officer

For the cabinet secretary’s information, three members wish to ask supplementaries. We have gone a bit over, but we will see whether we can get through them all.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I thank the cabinet secretary for the prompt action that he has taken to preserve an important feature in Strathspey.

When the cabinet secretary looks at how to resolve the problems, I ask him to consider five asks. First, there should be an appropriate break clause in the new contract in the event that the new company fails to perform; there was no such clause in the contract with Cairngorm Mountain. Secondly, there should be a requirement for all relevant parties to maintain vehicle access to the mountain. Thirdly, a review of all the ski lifts is desperately needed. Fourthly, there should be a review of pedestrian access rights to the plateau for non-skiers. Finally, building on the fact that the local community is so important, the local community should form part of the board and have an active say in how the mountain will be managed.

Fergus Ewing

I am grateful for Mr Mountain’s support and the cross-party approach that is being adopted on the issue, which is in line with the approach that is being taken locally with the funicular response group. I am happy to give an undertaking that all the points that are raised will be looked at.

A review of the uplift requirements has already been instructed and announced. That is in the public domain, and I will welcome the findings and a debate about the findings. There is tremendous knowledge and expertise within Badenoch and Strathspey, including a number of Olympians, some of whom are making a contribution to the debate.

The issue of access to the plateau is one that has been debated for a long time. Community involvement is something that of course we are keen on. Working together, I am hopeful that we can find a solution. The administration is time limited and will not continue for much longer. I can assure all members that both me and particularly the officials at HIE are working around the clock on the issue, because we are aware of the importance that it has to Badenoch and Strathspey and the local economy.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Significant sums of money have gone into the location over the years and it is a shambles. The cabinet secretary will be aware that Audit Scotland has a role in considering whether public bodies have exercised due diligence and ensured that public moneys have been properly expended. Will the cabinet secretary call on Audit Scotland to do that in respect of HIE’s role in Cairngorm Mountain?

Fergus Ewing

No, I will not do that. It is for Audit Scotland to make its decisions. Quite properly, it is entirely independent of Government. I do not think that course of action is relevant.

I am disappointed that the cross-party approach that seems to have been taken apparently does not extend to the Greens. [Interruption.] Calling things a shambles is unfortunate. What local residents wish and what the supporters of snow sports wish—and there is a huge number in Badenoch and Strathspey and around Scotland—is that we find the right practical solution.

I live in the area, and I have not met anyone who does not welcome the £1 million investment in the snow-making equipment. At the weekend, we saw that snow-making equipment in the Lecht allowed skiing to take place where there was no natural snow. That is a terrific thing—it is a game-changing technology.

We should all unite on this issue, and work together in what is a difficult and complex legal situation to find the best way through that allows skiing and snow sports to continue this winter as much as they can, given the difficulties with the funicular. Is it surprising, given the climatic conditions in which the funicular operates and its age, that there are some issues? We are working hard to overcome the practicalities and I am happy to keep the main parties that support us informed about the progress that we make.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Is the cabinet secretary aware that the success of winter sports in the Cairngorms and elsewhere in Scotland depends on people travelling significant distances? They will only do so if there is a certainty of snow.

I find that there is some irony in making a plea for additional snow on the Cairn Gorm and elsewhere. Will the cabinet secretary make sure that the prospective customers are aware that there will always be snow from this Government?

Fergus Ewing

I can do lots of things, but I leave it to the Lord Almighty to provide us with adequate supplies of snow.

Seriously, the snow-making equipment is game changing and has the potential to do what hitherto has been impossible: to provide certainty for individuals and families who wish to participate in the excellent opportunities for skiing and snow sports in Scotland.

It is game changing and has been tried and tested. It has been taken up on the Lecht, and I believe that it has been taken up or tried elsewhere, such as at Glencoe. For the past seven or eight years, I have been working with all the outdoor ski resorts—and Xscape, in Glasgow, which is a valuable feeder. As Mr Stevenson rightly has said, the snow-making equipment has the potential to move the success of our snow-sports resorts to a new dimension. We will certainly avail ourselves of that tremendous opportunity.

The Presiding Officer

I thank the cabinet secretaries and members for their forbearance. That concludes topical questions.