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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Meeting of the Parliament (Hybrid) 23 February 2021

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Point of Order, Business Motion, Covid-19, Point of Order, Business Motion, Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Heat Networks (Scotland) Bill, Decision Time, Scotland’s Railways


Scotland’s Railways

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Lewis Macdonald)

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S5M-24139, in the name of John Finnie, on investing in Scotland’s railways. The debate will be concluded without any question being put. Members who wish to speak in the debate should press their request-to-speak buttons now.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament believes that investing in expanding, upgrading and decarbonising the rail network could play an important role in Scotland’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, creating jobs and reducing emissions from other forms of transport; welcomes the growing debate around future investment plans for rail, including the proposals set out in the Rail for All report; notes the view that upgrading and electrifying the Highland Main Line in particular could be of strategic importance, given its importance to Highland communities; understands that transport freight by rail to the Highlands could make a significant contribution to reducing emissions and relieving congestion on roads, and notes calls for the rapid decarbonisation of Scotland’s rail network in line with the country’s climate targets.


John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

Greens believe that investing in, expanding, upgrading and decarbonising the rail network could play an important role in Scotland’s economic recovery from Covid-19. We know that those things would create jobs and reduce emissions from other forms of transport. I welcome the growing debate around our future investment in rail, and I thank members who signed my motion, as well as those who will contribute to the debate tonight.

My focus will be the “Rail for All” report, which I commissioned and which was welcomed by many people, from rail and engineering professionals to trade unions, as well as David Prescott and David Spaven, who are acknowledged industry experts. It is a 20-year, fully costed £22 billion plan of investment for Scotland’s railways that seeks to build a modern zero-carbon network that is affordable and, importantly, accessible to all. It makes rail the natural choice for commuters, businesses and leisure travellers. We believe that such an investment should be a central component of the green recovery from Covid.

The plan is based on the principle that everything that is proposed comes from existing technologies. The rail network should be zero carbon, and full electrification is the way to achieve that. The oft-suggested alternative of hydrogen from renewable energy is a limited resource and would be best used in sectors in which there are no alternatives, such as heavy industry.

Journey times could be significantly reduced, and all communities of more than 5,000 people should be connected to the rail network. When that is not possible at a realistic cost, a coach route and bus network should be part of the integrated transport network. To that end, the Scottish Government should activate the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019 provisions that allow local authorities to run their own bus services.

The pandemic has shown that rail freight is resilient, and a continued shift from road to rail would substantially reduce carbon emissions and ease congestion on roads. The Scottish Government’s own infrastructure commission said that priority should be given to the maintenance of the existing road network, and we know that there is a maintenance backlog of £1.8 billion and £1.2 billion for local authority and trunk roads, respectively. Therefore, that, rather than expansion of the road network, should be the focus.

The motion mentions the Highland main line, and there is no doubt that upgrading the Highland main line is of strategic importance. There is an immediate comparator, because, for many miles of the journey, the line runs alongside the A9, which has received £3 billion for its extension to four lanes for motor vehicles, whereas there is only one track for the train. We have recently seen the value of redirecting traffic following the—[Inaudible.]—Aberdeen to central belt lines. The motion also calls for rapid decarbonisation of Scotland’s rail network, in line with our climate targets, which will support long-term services and be of benefit to future generations.

That is not to say that there have not been improvements. We know that there have been improvements to the Anglo-Scottish services and those in and around Glasgow and Edinburgh, but the network north of the central belt has largely been neglected, and passengers are dependent on an ageing network that performs poorly. The historical comparators are well known by many, and we could have drawn similar—[Inaudible.]—Victorian times.

To facilitate the expansion and improvement of our rail network, we urgently need to reform the institutions and decision-making processes. Everyone must be aligned behind that goal, and the work must be co-ordinated and streamlined. As things stand, all transport infrastructure investment projects have to go through the STAG—Scottish transport appraisal guidance—process, which is extremely detailed, complex, time consuming and costly. Sadly, Transport Scotland applies the guidance—as it does on many issues—in a pedantic way.

Of critical importance in achieving the Scottish Government’s 2035 rail decarbonisation target is the need to treat core rail electrification as a single project with a single appraisal to be delivered through a number of discrete contracts, much as the Scottish Government has done with—ironically—its projects for dualling the A9 and the A96. It is also important that we reintegrate ScotRail and Network Rail into one publicly owned company, with oversight by the Scottish ministers. There is no place for private profit for offshore companies from vital public services.

The incoming Scottish Government must, at the earliest possible opportunity in the next session of Parliament, make it clear that it prioritises delivery of a modern zero-carbon rail network that is accessible to all, and key institutions such as Transport Scotland must be fully aligned with that aim. In order to do that, the incoming Government will need to establish a task force. Examples of early successes that could be delivered include provision of additional stations; the opening of existing freight lines for passenger trains, as the United Kingdom Government is doing; and the initiation of a rolling programme of electrification. I recognise the work that has already taken place in that regard.

There could be some small-scale electrification to eliminate pockets of diesel working, generally in areas where electrification already exists. There is also the possibility of using electric and battery bi-mode trains, and other things could be done around charging points for electric vehicles at stations and better access for biking and walking. Part of the report focuses on the much-publicised Forth tunnel. There are real benefits to be had from that, because it would free up capacity at Haymarket and allow greater movement to the west as well as to the north.

There is so much that could be said, but, in the limited time that I have left, I will simply say that the most cost-effective and cheapest way of expanding the network would be to introduce services on existing freight lines. We can see that, and my colleague Mark Ruskell might talk about it later. Rail is the most efficient and sustainable means of shifting freight, particularly for long journeys. Unfortunately, however, it has a modest share of the market despite road haulage having issues with climate change, air quality, congestion and safety.

In commending the report, one of its authors, David Spaven, said:

“Based on our long experience in the industry—and taking account of international best practice—we put together a programme focused not just on rail’s crucial contribution to decarbonisation, but also on the wide range of other environmental, social and economic benefits”.

I commend the report, and I look forward to the other contributions.


Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I draw members’ attention to my entry in the register of members’ interests in relation to my being honorary president of the Scottish Association for Public Transport and honorary vice-president of Railfuture UK. I thank John Finnie for the opportunity to discuss railways—in particular, how they might be part of the post-Covid world.

John Finnie mentioned Mr Spaven, and I have his wonderful book “The Railway Atlas of Scotland”, which presents a historical view of the railways of Scotland. My wife gave it to me as a Christmas present some years ago. It is an excellent book, and I commend it to all members.

The railway is, without question, the most comfortable way to travel. When I compare my driving from home to Parliament with, alternatively, making the journey using a train for all but my 15 miles to the station, I see that it costs half as much to use the train. More to the point, it is substantially more environmentally friendly, and under Government plans it will become even more so. The steam trains on which I travelled in the 1950s—I remember, in particular, a trip from Benderloch to Oban in 1956 to attend hospital after getting sunstroke—were fascinating. They were noisy and aromatic, with all the mechanical gubbins reciprocating in full view, as well as engaging to the eye, but environmentally friendly they most certainly were not, through burning coal and emitting vast amounts of smoke and particulates.

Today’s trains are faster, smoother and quieter, and they are increasingly powered by renewable energy. The refreshments from the on-board trolley, on a longer journey, are tastier and use more locally sourced ingredients. The overnight sleeper is the only way to travel south, if travel to the south is something that you must do.

I am old enough to remember when the Highland main line was dualled—at least, I am fairly certain that it used to be dualled all the way down to the central belt. We live with many of the short-sighted decisions that were made in the 1960s. We all remember the Beeching report, but focusing on that element alone would represent an unfair description of what actually happened. Beeching was paid a considerable amount to implement a policy decision that emanated from the desk of the then UK Minister of Transport, Ernest Marples. He was the managing director of Marples Ridgway—a road construction firm with substantial interests in building motorways. It might tell us all that we need to know about his motivations and actions to remember that he ended up fleeing the House of Lords to Monaco to escape prosecution for tax fraud. We should perhaps remember that inglorious period in our railway history as the “Marples Catastrophe”.

We now have the opportunity to improve the railways that we have and to extend their reach. In my part of the country, it is time to look at taking the railway back to Ellon and then to the biggest non-railway towns—Peterhead, with a population of 19,000, and Fraserburgh, with a population of 15,000, both of which are in my constituency.

My favourite mode of transport is the railway. It makes economic, environmental and energy sense, and I have happy memories of travelling on bits of the network that no longer exist. Brought up in Cupar, I used to choose to go the long way round to Dundee to the swimming baths, via Tentsmuir, Tayport, Newport and Wormit. That line is no longer there, but perhaps it might return in the future.

I once again thank Mr Finnie, and I thank the Government for its support of our railways. I also thank you, Presiding Officer, for calling me to speak this evening.


Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I, too, thank John Finnie for bringing the debate to the chamber. I hope that he is still watching—although he is entitled to make contributions remotely, quite a bit of the important stuff that he said was lost. That is a shame, because this is an important debate. I was happy when I saw that we would be debating Scotland’s railways, although I was less happy when I realised that it would involve my looking at the Scottish Green Party’s website to find the report that is mentioned in the motion.

Nonetheless, the proposals in “Rail for All” make for interesting reading and show that there is not a great deal of difference between parties when it comes to rail. We all agree that we need to decarbonise the network and that there needs to be a push towards electrification; the Greens do not seem overly keen on hydrogen, but I think that it could have a place. The Greens want to connect more communities by rail, and so do the Conservatives, which is why we are saying, both north and south of the border, that we should look at reopening old routes. The Greens want to move freight from road to rail, which is sensible where it is possible.

The report suggests a number of projects. One is for two 9-mile tunnels under the Firth of Forth, from Abbeyhill, which is just along the road from the Parliament. I am not in any position to criticise ambitious tunnelling plans, but that does not look likely to happen any time soon. There is also a proposal for a new overground station at Argyle Street in Glasgow. It would be above the car park behind the St Enoch centre; I am not sure how feasible that would be. There are a host of other proposed projects—the report is very thorough, and I commend Mr Finnie and the Greens for commissioning it.

Our railways can be an important part of a green recovery from Covid. They can help to decarbonise our transport system. A modern efficient public transport system with clean trains—or buses—that run on time and produce low emissions can and should encourage people away from cars.

Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

I do not disagree with anything that Graham Simpson has said so far but, given the track record of privatisation, how can we have any faith that that model would provide the type of rail service that he says he wants?

Graham Simpson

I am not as obsessed by ownership as Neil Findlay is. What matters is the service that is delivered to the public; that is what counts.

The motion mentions the Highland main line. The report says:

“The Highland main line is two thirds single track, putting severe restrictions on capacity and speed. Electrification could bring substantial journey time savings.”

I agree with that. It is absurd that such a line, running broadly alongside the A9, is two thirds single track, so we must consider that. There is a similar issue in my patch, where the line from East Kilbride to Glasgow is not fully dualled, which has caused issues. I am delighted that the line is to be electrified and twin-tracked, and I praise the cabinet secretary for helping to deliver that. Work is starting on the project as we speak.

I thank John Finnie for a useful debate on a useful motion. The report is also useful. I do not agree with everything in it, but it has helped to spark debate, which is a good thing.


Colin Smyth (South Scotland) (Lab)

I refer members to my entry in the register of interests, which states that I am the volunteer chair of the campaign for the re-opening of Eastriggs railway station.

I thank John Finnie for his motion and for providing the opportunity to debate the importance of investing in our railways. I know that this will not be his final contribution in the chamber, but it might be the last members’ business debate that he leads. In case it is, I place on record my appreciation for the many thoughtful contributions from him that I have had the privilege of hearing in my short time in Parliament. John Finnie brings knowledge and wisdom to debates. It will not do his legacy any good to say so, but we share many of the same principles, and particularly a belief in public ownership of our railways.

I thank Mr Finnie for his support in the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee. I suspect that, on many occasions, we both felt that we might be ploughing a lone furrow in trying to amend Government legislation. I do not know how many 9-2 there were during committee meetings, but there were many, and Mr Finnie and I were always the two. We were both in good company.

It is appropriate for Mr Finnie to bring the issue of investment in our railways to the chamber, as it is a subject that he is passionate about. His motion highlights the need to upgrade and electrify the Highland main line. My colleague Rhoda Grant has been working tirelessly with the Friends of the Far North Line on its campaign for more frequent services and for improvements to a line that has lacked investment for far too long.

Last weekend, the Highland main line was again closed by flooding, which cut off direct rail links to Edinburgh and Glasgow and again highlighted the lack of resilience on the line and the need for a plan for much-needed improvements, including a clear timetable for electrification.

Sadly, that is also the case with rail investment in many other neglected parts of Scotland, including in my South Scotland region. If the Government is serious about delivering inclusive economic growth and meeting our climate change targets, we must have an equitable sharing out of infrastructure investment across Scotland. I will highlight some examples.

As is the case with many routes in the Highlands, the current line from Glasgow to the south-west, which runs between Glasgow and Kilmarnock before branching off in two directions, to Stranraer in the west and Carlisle in the east, has lacked investment for decades. The issue was exposed when the west coast main line was closed due to storm damage, and the Nith valley line was used as a diversion. Trains that normally travel at more than 100mph on the west coast main line crawled their way along the diversion route. There is a real need to upgrade that line from a rural line to a main one. That should include electrification, not only from Glasgow to Kilmarnock but along the full length of the line.

Sadly, the Scottish Government has excluded the Girvan to Stranraer stretch from the electrification proposals in its plans, despite the growing importance of the Cairnryan ferry port and our links to Northern Ireland. That stretch of line is one of the most antiquated in the country. Traditional physical tokens are still used for signals, it suffers poor speeds, and it is not able to carry heavy freight. The line is badly in need of investment.

There has been a great deal of debate about investment in that part of the country, including discussion of a link between Wigtownshire and Northern Ireland—first a bridge, then a tunnel. At the weekend, I read that it might involve four tunnels crossing over on the Isle of Man. Perhaps the next proposal will be for a zip wire. If both Governments have billions of pounds to spend on improving infrastructure between Scotland and Northern Ireland, they could invest in improving the A75 and A77 and, ideally, reopen the Dumfries to Stranraer railway, a project that is missing from the Green Party’s document referred to in Mr Finnie’s motion.

There are also strong cases for new stations across the south-west, such as at Thornhill on the Nith valley line and at Eastriggs. There are campaigns for the reopening of Cumnock and Mauchline stations in Ayrshire, which I fully support. There are other opportunities to improve the infrastructure right across the south-west, but we need real investment in it.

I have highlighted a number of projects, in the south and the north of Scotland, that could make a real difference to the communities concerned, to the economy and to our environment. One other improvement that would make a difference is to bring the railways under public ownership. The Welsh Government recently led the way, bringing the Wales and Borders rail franchise into public ownership. It really is time for the Scottish Government to follow that example with the Abellio ScotRail and Serco Caledonian sleeper franchises, so that we can have a rail service that puts passengers first, not profits.


Mark Ruskell (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Green)

I join other members in thanking John Finnie for using this opportunity, in what I think will be his last members’ business debate at Holyrood, to highlight this important issue. John has done a power of good on the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee working on rail issues over many years, and I am sure that he would want to thank Colin Smyth and other members for their kind words tonight. The report leaves us with a strong legacy for the future—not just for John Finnie’s constituents in the Highlands and Islands but for people across Scotland.

One of the first emails in my inbox when I was finally re-elected in 2016 was from the Levenmouth rail campaign, asking me to back the call to reconnect that community of more than 35,000 people to the rail network. Politicians from across the chamber got behind that campaign. The scheme demonstrates the transformational power of rail, especially for communities that have been left behind by industrial decline. I am delighted that, as we head to the end of this session of Parliament, work is under way to reopen the line by 2023. I am sure that the cabinet secretary, alongside me and other local members, looks forward to seeing the first train leave from Leven for many years, together with the opportunities for work, education, leisure and investment that will follow for local residents on the back of that reopening.

That must not be the end of Scotland’s rail revolution; it should be seen as only the beginning. The “Rail for All” programme of the Scottish Greens is an ambitious plan to ensure that everyone in Scotland benefits from the transformation that rail can bring.

Thinking about other places in my region, the success of the Levenmouth campaign has been a real boost for other communities that are looking to be reconnected to the rail network. Over the past five years, I have worked with campaigners in St Andrews, Newburgh, west Fife and Clackmannanshire, alongside those from Levenmouth, in a Fife rail forum, which has provided mutual support and guidance with the often glacial appraisals process through which the campaigners have had to work.

That forum’s collective work led to our budget win in 2018 to create the local rail development fund, which has since funded feasibility work on 17 projects across Scotland. A further £5 million, which we secured from last year’s budget, is now funding work to extend the Alloa rail link to Longannet, as well as providing a new platform at Milngavie. However, there is still a long way to go, however, to complete the full redualling that the Milngavie line needs and to secure a firm commitment to reopen the Alloa line right through to Dunfermline.

Feasibility studies can, however, all too often be used to frustrate rather than deliver progress. As the LRDF-funded studies come to a conclusion in the coming months, we need ambition and leadership from Transport Scotland and the cabinet secretary, and a commitment to deliver a rail network that is fit for the future.

That is what “Rail for All” proposes, and perhaps the most ambitious proposal of all is for a tunnel under the Forth. Why should Scotland not aim for modern and fast underground connections, which are common in other parts of Europe such as Switzerland and Scandinavia? To date, improvements on the east coast network have been hampered by the bottlenecks created at the Forth rail bridge and Haymarket. Adding new services along the reopened Levenmouth to St Andrews and Dunfermline to Alloa routes will be extremely restricted as long as a single broken-down train at Haymarket can bring the whole network to a standstill.

The proposed tunnel between Leith and Kirkcaldy would not only slash journey times to east Fife, Perth and Dundee but would free up the capacity that is needed to address the chronic issues on the current Fife circle route to places such as Dunfermline. A significant number of people from Fife still commute to Edinburgh by car, because the current rail service is convenient only for those who work in the city centre. A new eastern approach to Edinburgh via Leith that connects to a reopened south Edinburgh suburban line, as is also proposed in the report, would greatly increase the viable commuting options, encouraging more Fifers to leave their cars at home and choose low-carbon public transport.

Ultimately, we need low-carbon rail to be the first choice for as many people as possible, and that will require not only fast electrification but an ambitious expansion of the network across Scotland to finally deliver rail for all.


Neil Findlay (Lothian) (Lab)

I thank my friend John Finnie for bringing forward the debate. John will be a great loss to Parliament, but I am sure that, like me, he does not intend to go away and will continue to campaign outside Parliament on the issues that he feels strongly about. We have spent almost 10 years together as members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers parliamentary group, which discusses issues around rail.

I begin by declaring an interest as a member of the union Unite, and I put on record my thanks to the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen, the RMT, the Transport Salaried Staffs Association and Unite for the work that they do in the rail sector and all the support that they have given me over the past decade as a member of the Scottish Parliament. The relentless campaigning of the rail unions, working alongside some politicians, community groups and passenger organisations, has made the now irrefutable case for our railways to be returned to where they should always have been—in public ownership.

I contend that all the essential major infrastructure that we need in the economy should be held publicly and owned and controlled by the people for the people. Our railways, which are so vital for our economic and social lives, should never have been run by privateers whose sole motive was shareholder return and profit maximisation. I say the same for water, energy, telecoms and broadband, airports, ferries, prisons, council and NHS services, the Post Office, buses and hospitals, and I go further: we should be producing generic pharmaceuticals publicly as well.

Covid has shown the folly of those who worship at the altar of the so-called free market. If it had been left to market forces, the railway would have been shut down many years ago, and over the past year, people would have gone unpaid, businesses across the board would have closed and there would have been an even greater level of hunger and unemployment than we have now, which would have inevitably resulted in social unrest and the breakdown of law and order as desperate people tried to survive.

We have only got through this because Governments, against their every political instinct, have been forced to take an interventionist role. People being paid wages for no work, businesses being given money not to open and trains being subsidised to run empty are anathema to those who adhere to the free market, but all are actions that have been absolutely essential to maintain a relatively civilised society.

I hope that we learn one big lesson from the pandemic: if the state can intervene in such a massive way in times of crisis to support people and industries, why can we not do that in times of relative calm to create the good society, starting with the most obvious place, which is the railways?

During the years that Abellio has been running the franchise, the service on our railways has been appalling. We can all recall the skip-stopping, the cancelled trains and the packed carriages—and then, every year, customers being rewarded with another fares increase.

The Scottish Parliament information centre told me today that, between 2015 and 2020, the state paid £1.5 billion to run Scotland’s railways. However, fares have increased every single year since 2005, amounting to a 50 per cent increase in the past 10 years, as money has been sucked out of the system by those who have extracted profit from it.

The Scottish Government has come up with all sorts of excuses for not bringing the railways back into public ownership. We know that those excuses have all been nonsense, because we see that the Labour Government in Wales has done exactly that. I argue that we need public ownership if we are to create a sustainable, integrated transport system—for an effective, value-for-money railway that is based on service provision and not profit maximisation; a green, sustainable future; economic recovery; and staff who are proud to serve and passengers who are proud to use the service.

I am more than happy to support ASLEF’s call for devolution of powers over rail, but that should not be used as a shield for lack of action now.


Pauline McNeill (Glasgow) (Lab)

I, too, thank John Finnie for bringing the motion to the chamber, for his contribution to the debate and for the many contributions and everything that he has brought to the Parliament over the many years that I have known him. I also want to put on the record that Neil Findlay has been a stalwart in the campaign for publicly owned railways in Scotland. I am sure that he will continue his work away from the Parliament.

I, too, declare my membership of the RMT parliamentary group. I thank the RMT for all that it has done to keep its members safe. I also thank ScotRail for providing information in its most difficult year, during the pandemic.

Investment in our rail services has huge public support. People love railways and they like to travel on trains as their preferred choice of public transport. As such, there is huge support for publicly run railways. The RMT brought together a coalition of organisations, with many MSPs from different parties joining together last year to call for the appointment of a public rail operator as soon as possible.

I believe that the time is right to end profit-run railways in Scotland. We should run a service that is accountable to the elected Government but which also gives travellers a much greater say in how their service is run and ends the practice of fares escalating above the rate of inflation. It is time to take public control of the system—not for its own sake, but to give people a better travelling experience.

John Finnie rightly spoke about rail being crucial to the zero-carbon agenda. However, if we are serious about that, I believe that we must be much more ambitious. In Parliament, I have continued to call for implementation of a crossrail system for Glasgow and the west of Scotland, which would provide an essential link between Glasgow Central station and Glasgow Queen Street station, and would address a major weakness in the greater Glasgow train network. The proposed project would electrify and reopen the city union line for regular passengers, and would be done in conjunction with the laying of new track. The line would connect with Ayrshire, Kilmarnock and many other parts of the west of Scotland, which would make a huge difference to reducing congestion in the region and would allow rail users real choice. It would include a new station at Glasgow Cross, potentially connecting to the interchange on the Argyle Street line, and the opening of further new stations in the Gorbals and beyond. To me, implementing the cross-rail project is still an essential element of any serious ambition for our railway. Scottish Labour supported the proposal in its 2016 manifesto, and I know that Mark Ruskell of the Green party has also voiced his support for it as a means of reducing congestion.

Importantly, if we want a serious alternative to travelling by air from Scotland’s major cities to the south, we must provide an improvement. As the co-convener of the cross-party group on rail, I have attended most of the meetings with the rail operators. I have been really shocked to learn that, on the west coast main line, there will be no reduction in the travel time from Glasgow to London during the next five years. By and large, the journey still takes more than four hours. If we do not get that down, I do not think that people will choose rail. Obviously, it is difficult to make that assumption when we are just coming through a pandemic and we do not know what the future of air travel is, but I have always believed that we must get the travel time down.

We have not debated Sunday services in depth. I have raised that critical issue with ScotRail over the years. In some communities, the service is only every two hours. We must address such issues through our rail infrastructure, and we must discuss with trade unions and the rail operators the ways in which we can continue to make dramatic improvements to rail services.

As far as I recall, we have not debated HS2—high-speed 2—in Parliament. HS2 will be a serious feature of the rail network across the United Kingdom in the years to come. We need to assess whether there are benefits to Scotland. It is time that we had a debate about that. The future that I want is one in which Scotland has publicly owned railways, the public are given a bigger say and we are more ambitious for rail, all round.


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

I, too, am grateful to John Finnie for securing the debate. I know that he has had a long-standing interest in the issue and that he has been a long-time campaigner for improvements not only to the Highland main line but to rail and the public transport system as a whole. His voice, and how he has articulated those views over the years, will certainly be missed when he leaves this place before the coming election.

I have listened with interest to all the members’ points on a whole range of rail projects that they would like to see in their areas. That brings me to John Finnie’s point about the nature of the STAG process, which Mark Ruskell also mentioned. He might be aware that, as part of our national transport strategy, there is a review of the STAG process. However, the very fact that there are bids for projects in Fife, south-west Scotland, Glasgow, the west coast main line, Lanarkshire and the Highlands demonstrates that there needs to be an appraisal process to determine where the investments can be made, because there is a limited amount of funding available in any control period to invest in our rail infrastructure. That is the reality. That said, our investment during control period 6 is at record levels, with £9 billion being invested in our rail infrastructure since 2007.

I want to pick up on a couple of key points that are important when considering the future of our railways. To date, a lot of the planning that has taken place for future infrastructure investment in the rail network is on the principle of ever-increasing demand for rail services across the majority of the network. However, it is uncertain whether changes in travel behaviour and work patterns as a result of the pandemic will have an impact on demand across our rail network. The industry, the Government and other stakeholders are trying to understand what future demand will be as a result of those behaviour changes.

Businesses that did not previously support home working or flexible working in which people could work from home a couple of days a week have now put in place such arrangements during the pandemic. That is likely to have a lasting legacy on our transport network, including our rail network, that needs to be factored into our future plans and thinking.

The Scottish Government has set out an ambitious plan to decarbonise our rail network by 2035. I know that John Finnie wants to see rapid decarbonisation. That is the most rapid decarbonisation plan that can be taken forward because significant development is still taking place on a range of traction options that are zero-emissions forms of trains.

Hydrogen trains are currently still at the concept development stage. We are supporting that development through our hydrogen accelerator, which we are taking forward in partnership with the University of St Andrews. Through that project, one of the retired ScotRail 314 trains is now undergoing a refit at Bo’ness, where it will be turned into a hydrogen train to test out the concept. We are also discussing with manufacturers the potential use of battery electric trains which, again, could play an important part in shaping our future electrification programme.

When people say to me that we need to electrify the whole Fife circle or all of the Highland main line, they have to consider a number of factors. First, could hydrogen trains play a part? Secondly, could battery electric trains play a part? That would mean that we would have to electrify only part, rather than all, of the line, because the batteries are rechargeable. Thirdly, if we electrify the line, what would that do to the line’s resilience? In certain geographical areas, the weather can be significantly challenging at times, and the introduction of electrical overhead cables could result in low levels of resilience on the line. All those factors need to be taken into consideration in thinking about how we can improve our transport and rail infrastructure.

Neil Findlay

Given all those potentially exciting developments, does the cabinet secretary believe that the closure of the Caley rail works was industrial vandalism?

Michael Matheson

I want to look forward, rather than go over past issues. As the member will be aware, a private sector company was running the Caley works, and there was no longer a purpose for the site. I know that members such as Neil Findlay would say to me, “Look, just bring it into public ownership”—but to do what with it? The industry says that the site is not required at present. We have seen the same in other parts of the rail network, where things have had to be changed. Is it possible for the site to be reused at some point in the future, given the new developments in the rail industry, such as new types of traction? It could potentially be reused, but at this stage the opportunity is not there. That is why it is critically important that we invest in areas in which we know that we can deliver change and improvements in our rail network.

A number of members, including Pauline McNeill, referred to the fact that rail is a very popular form of public transport. Nonetheless, we need to keep in mind that rail provides about 20 per cent of our public transport capacity. The vast majority of people depend on bus services, which is why, in designing a rail network, we need to ensure that it fits into our wider approach to investment in our public transport infrastructure.

It is worth reflecting on the fact that almost 70 per cent of all passenger journeys in the Scottish network now take place on electric trains on electrified lines. There has been massive investment in the reopening and electrification of the Airdrie to Bathgate line and the electrification of the Glasgow to Edinburgh line. We also have plans to partially electrify the Borders line, which we reopened, in order to potentially introduce battery electric trains to remove diesel from the system. In addition, we are looking at partial electrification of the Fife line, and at other parts of the network where electrification, or partial electrification, could play an important part.

Mr Finnie raised an important point about provision for freight in our rail network. Greater electrification of our infrastructure can play an extremely important part in increasing the level of freight that we can use across our rail network, largely because the lines can take longer trains and heavier goods levels. It could therefore play a big part in helping to support our significant programme of work to try to increase current levels of rail freight.

We are already taking forward that work with the timber industry; Mr Finnie will be aware of the project that was undertaken on the northern line. We are also working with the food and drink industry to look at expanding its use of rail freight, as demonstrated by the investment at Blackford to support Highland Spring in making greater use of rail freight. There are a range of areas in which greater electrification and different traction types would not only help to support our desire to decarbonise our rail network, but improve passenger services. Such development can also be good for our economy.

Members raised a number of points regarding investments that they want to see in their area, but I am conscious of time. I will finish on the point about public ownership that was raised by Colin Smyth, Neil Findlay and other members. I believe in, and support, public ownership of our rail network, but it is important to recognise that simply taking the rolling stock into public ownership would not address the systemic problems in the rail industry regarding the disconnect between the infrastructure and the rolling-stock element.

We can look at what has been done in Wales, where the Welsh Government took over a previously struggling franchise as an operator of last resort, ahead of when it had intended to do so, because of the financial problems. However, the rail infrastructure in Wales includes significant private sector involvement, which is something that I do not support. I believe that both parts of the network should sit within the public sector, and they should be integrated in a way that helps to improve passenger services, so that passengers can see the benefits that come from that arrangement.

That is exactly what we are doing through the work that we, in the Scottish Government, are taking forward. We are not simply saying that we want the rail network in public ownership—we are thinking about how that can be achieved in an integrated fashion that improves services for passengers and delivers democratic accountability in respect of how rail services operate. That is the approach that we will take forward when the franchise ends next year.

I hope that members will recognise that we, as a Government, have ambitious plans, and that we are committed to decarbonising our rail network. Alongside that, we want to expand the network into communities that have previously not had railways or which have been disconnected for many decades, while looking at how we can reform our rail system to improve the way in which services are provided to members of the public when they use the network. I am grateful to all members for their comments this evening.

Meeting closed at 18:17.