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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 24 January 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motion, Topical Question Time, Draft Scottish Energy Strategy, Forestry, ScotRail Performance Improvement Plan (Update), Decision Time, World Cancer Day


Contents


ScotRail Performance Improvement Plan (Update)

The Presiding Officer (Ken Macintosh)

The next item of business is a statement by Humza Yousaf on an update on the ScotRail performance improvement plan. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so members should refrain from intervening during it.

17:00  

The Minister for Transport and the Islands (Humza Yousaf)

I welcome the opportunity to update Parliament on the progress of ScotRail’s improvement plan. This is an exciting and challenging period for rail in Scotland, with record levels of investment, projects such as the Edinburgh to Glasgow improvement programme and fleets of new electric and high-speed trains, which will revolutionise services. I know that members are also keen to hear an update on the management changes that Network Rail and Abellio recently announced for the ScotRail franchise and to hear details of the free week fares offer.

I start with the performance improvement plan. When I received the plan, the moving annual average performance level was 89.6 per cent, against the contractual trigger of 90.3 per cent. As soon as the plan was received, we set about detailed scrutiny of its delivery. Our latest information is that more than 86 actions have been completed and that the vast majority of those that remain are under way.

As a live document, the original 249-point plan has expanded to include more than 270 initiatives. Members will be familiar with the fact that the improvement plan was split into three distinct sections covering infrastructure, rolling stock and operations. It was also backed by £16 million of accelerated funding by the ScotRail Alliance.

I take the opportunity to thank railway staff up and down the country for all the hard work that they have put in, particularly over the past few railway periods, to help to make our railways run better—from the engineers who have improved signalling through to the station staff who have tweaked operations to run even more efficiently. Their efforts are not often acknowledged enough, so I give heartfelt thanks to each and every one of them.

The particular reason why I thank those staff is that, because of their direct efforts, we have seen an improvement in performance across the railway network in Scotland. I am confident that the continued focus from staff and management through the performance improvement plan will see a return to the levels of performance that passengers are—rightly—entitled to expect.

Let me be clear that ScotRail is not yet performing at the level that I would like it to. However, let us be equally clear that neither is the situation the apocalyptic scenario that is often presented and painted by some of our opponents. Let us examine the facts. First, since the improvement plan was received, performance has improved. The moving annual average—the contractual measure and the standard industry measure that is used across the United Kingdom—has improved from 89.6 per cent in period 6, when we received the plan, to 90 per cent. That is 0.3 of a percentage point away from ScotRail’s target of 90.3 per cent, achieving which would lift it out of improvement plan territory so that—obviously and logically—it would not require an improvement plan any more.

If we look at the most recent railway period—period 10, which coincided with high winds, including two storms—we see that there was a 6 per cent improvement in performance between periods 9 and 10. The comparisons with the rest of the Great Britain rail network tell their own story. ScotRail’s bettering performance has seen it increase the gap between how well it is performing and how railways across the United Kingdom are performing. ScotRail’s level is now 2.3 per cent better than the GB average.

I know public performance measure and moving annual average figures are not the only measures of how well a railway performs. Passengers and commuters tell me, as I imagine they tell many members across the chamber, that they are frustrated by, for example, practices where their stops are skipped. The managing director of ScotRail, Phil Verster, announced a number of months ago that he would be putting in place a protocol to avoid that practice. Skip-stopping is reducing. I can confirm that, between periods 9 and 10, the practice reduced by about a third. It occurred on only 0.59 per cent of all services booked. I want ScotRail to do even better, but that is further proof that the improvement plan, as instructed, is delivering results.

However, I am disappointed by the national passenger survey results that were published today. The fieldwork for the survey took place in the autumn, just at the time that we demanded the improvement plan and before it started to take effect. There is no sugar-coating it—the results are disappointing.

I know that members also want an update on ScotRail’s free week initiative, which was announced at the end of last year. We said that we would make announcements with more details and we will. I reiterate, without any equivocation or doubt, that a week of free travel will be offered to annual and monthly season ticket holders this year. Further discounts will also be offered to weekly and less frequent travellers—whether the travel is for work or for leisure—and particularly for those who use a ScotRail smart card for their journeys. That is backed by £3 million of funding, which is £1 million more than those in the Opposition called for.

At the time of the announcement, I made it clear that we would bring forward further details of the scheme in early 2017. I was also clear that there will be a contribution from ScotRail, as well as from the Scottish Government. Members are keen to understand the source of funding for our fares initiative. Our service quality incentive regime—SQUIRE—focuses on improving the passenger experience across stations and services. The financial contributions that result from each four-weekly rail period on a rolling basis are reinvested for the benefit of rail passengers. Using a proportion of those funds to benefit ScotRail passengers through the fares initiative falls within the fund’s remit. The SQUIRE fund currently stands at £2.06 million, which is the net total after deducting £834,000 that is for projects that have been committed to or delivered. Of the SQUIRE fund, £1.8 million will be used for the fares initiative, and the remaining £1.2 million to fund that initiative will come from Transport Scotland’s budget. I want to be clear that other ring-fenced funds, such as the access for all fund and the Scottish stations fund, will not be impacted.

This is an exciting time in our railways. Backed by Scottish Government investment of more than £5 billion in this control period, there will be a revolution in rail. This year, the first of 70 new electric trains is being tested in Scotland. Passengers will be able to travel on those trains from autumn, and all the Edinburgh to Glasgow via Falkirk services will operate with the new fleet by December. Those longer, faster, greener trains will provide 26 per cent more seats at peak times from December 2017 and, from December 2018, that will rise to 44 per cent more seats when eight cars can operate. That will help with the capacity issues that passengers and members around the chamber want to see tackled.

From next year, the new fleet will be joined by 26 high-speed trains to link our seven main cities. Those trains will be completely refurbished before entering service and, combined with the revolution in rail initiative, they will help to deliver a step change in provision from the Highlands to the Borders. Once both fleets are introduced, the ScotRail fleet will contain more than 1,000 carriages, which is an increase of 50 per cent since we took over in government in 2007.

We are progressing our commitment to ensure that a public sector body can bid for future rail franchises. I set up a group to meet and discuss that important work that comprises delegates from Opposition parties, rail trade unions and other key stakeholders. We met in December and had a positive and constructive discussion, and we will meet again next month. At present, the focus of the work is on examining the suitability of existing bodies as bidders and the steps that would be required to create a new public sector body, if that is necessary.

In recent coverage, members will have noted a focus on the performance of Network Rail, on delays caused by its management of the network and on recent cost increases that have resulted from its development and management of major rail projects. That focus is justified. Network Rail is critical to the delivery of excellent day-to-day services and to our ambitious plans for growth and improvement, and that is why we fully fund it to deliver its network maintenance, management and project functions.

It cannot be right that the partner whose work we specify and fund has little accountability to ministers and to this Parliament, which is why I wrote last week to all parties to seek their support for the devolution of Network Rail. I thank those who have already given somewhat constructive responses. I believe that a properly devolved and accountable Network Rail will bring improved responsibility, accountability and operational efficiency and provide better alignment with Scotland’s needs and priorities.

I conclude by looking at one issue of Network Rail management—the planned departure of managing director Phil Verster. That is, of course, a decision for him, Abellio and Network Rail—a reclassified body under the Department for Transport—to make. I have shared a good relationship with him and I have never doubted his commitment to making our railways better. He continues in post and will oversee the improvement plan until he vacates his role. He has already presided over periods of improvement, as I have outlined, and I am grateful for that. I wish him well with his future endeavours. His successor, Alex Hynes, will join us in what are exciting and challenging times, as I have outlined. He comes with considerable experience in the railways.

Ultimately, progress in an industry as large, valuable and complex as rail is not about individuals. It is the collective efforts of the thousands of dedicated employees who I thanked earlier, supported by Government ministers and—critically—by the Parliament, that will deliver our ambitious plans, support and grow the economy and deliver a first-rate service, day in and day out, for passengers across Scotland.

Liam Kerr (North East Scotland) (Con)

I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement. It is right that he has come to the chamber to make a statement, given the changes at the top of the ScotRail Alliance in the past few days. We welcome the appointment of Alex Hynes to be the new managing director of the ScotRail Alliance. I wonder, however, whether Mr Hynes is prepared for the relationship with the Scottish Government that he will face in his new role, for it is that above all else that seems to have driven Mr Verster from his post.

There have been ill-thought-through announcements regarding public sector bids and the future of the franchise and uncosted raids on the SQUIRE fund without adequate consultation, for which Mr Verster cannot vouch, while the situation on the ground deteriorates for the travelling public, with customer satisfaction down and the latest performance data showing average annual punctuality lower than the contractual target.

It is not good enough. Can we have assurances from the transport minister that Mr Hynes will have the full support of the Government and that the minister will cease to bounce policy into the public domain without proper consultation with either ScotRail and/or the various stakeholders? Will the minister promise those passengers who are so fed up with the performance of our railway network that he will stop the gimmicks and the policy-making on the hoof and finally focus on resolving the underperformance of our national railway?

Humza Yousaf

I am afraid that being lectured on national railways by the Conservative Party—which of course is overseeing a 10-month dispute with Southern Railway—is a bit hard for me to stomach. However, I will say that I do not recognise at all the picture that the member paints of Scotland’s railways. I have just said in my 10-minute statement that we have seen improvement since we received the improvement plan.

When we received the plan in period 6, the moving annual average was 89.6 per cent; it is now at 90 per cent. It does not matter which political party members belong to—that is an improvement. When the practice known as skipping stops is reduced so that it takes place on only 0.59 per cent of services that are booked, that is an improvement. When we back investment in rail with £5 billion of Scottish Government funding, that shows our confidence in our railways.

I give the member an absolute assurance that when Alex Hynes takes up post, he will have the full support of this Government—in fact, I hope that I get the chance to speak to him before he takes up post. I imagine and I hope that he will also have the full support of everybody across the chamber.

All of us, whether it is the management of ScotRail and the ScotRail Alliance or Scottish Government ministers are working hard but, crucially, the 7,500 people who work in the alliance are working day in and day out, tirelessly, to ensure that passengers get the best experience possible. It would be nice if those people also received the support of members across the chamber.

Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement. Scottish Labour always welcomes the opportunity to question the Government on behalf of Scotland’s passengers. Passengers are fed up with the level of delays, cancellations, overcrowding and skip-stopping.

Despite everything that the minister has said, today’s passenger survey by Transport Focus confirms that passenger satisfaction is at a 14-year low. On almost every single measure, satisfaction is down compared to the previous year. Only 38 per cent of people are satisfied with how ScotRail deals with delays. The reality is that targets continue to be missed, passenger confidence has slumped and the ScotRail chief has announced that he is leaving after just 18 months.

The minister has agreed an improvement plan with ScotRail. In October, he told Parliament that he expected ScotRail to hit the 91.3 per cent target by the end of March, which is a clear target, expectation and deadline. That deadline is fast approaching and Phil Verster has announced that he is leaving. Will ScotRail hit that target? If it does not, what responsibility will the transport minister take for the performance of Scotland’s railways?

Humza Yousaf

It must be depressing to live in the mind of Neil Bibby, where everything seems to be going wrong. We should have an objective look at the facts, which show that, when we asked for the performance improvement plan in period 6, the moving annual average was at 89.6 per cent and it is now at 90 per cent. To say that there has not been an improvement is absolutely incorrect. The practice of skipping stops has reduced from period 9 to period 10, so to say that there has not been an improvement is incorrect.

I agree with Neil Bibby that the passenger satisfaction results are disappointing. A figure of 83 per cent satisfied is disappointing, although of course that is 2 per cent higher than the GB average. [Interruption.] It is incredible that Labour members are moaning and groaning when I am agreeing with their front-bench spokesman. I agree with him on that.

The first target for ScotRail to achieve is of course to no longer need the improvement plan. That would mean getting up to 90.3 per cent, and it is 0.3 per cent away from that. My expectation is that ScotRail should get to that as soon as possible, and I will keep pushing it on that. Ultimately, if ScotRail does not reach its targets or if it dips and goes into breach or default territory, there are some very severe sanctions, which we have discussed and which people know about. Ultimately, of course, that could lead to Abellio no longer having the franchise. However, I do not see us getting there. Instead of beating down ScotRail, I am working with it and with railway staff to ensure that they continue on the trajectory of improvement. It would be good if Neil Bibby joined me in that. If instead of doing down railway staff, Mr Bibby actually noted and commended them on the fact that they have been working tirelessly and have achieved some improvement, I think that that would help to motivate them to achieve further improvements.

Bob Doris (Glasgow Maryhill and Springburn) (SNP)

The minister has previously agreed to take an interest in the local improvement plan for services on the Maryhill train line that ScotRail agreed to develop following my representations. I want to ensure that national improvements become a local reality in my constituency, so can the minister assure me that the recent announcement of the looming change of the ScotRail managing director will not impact on improvements that my constituents expect locally? Can I count on the minister’s on-going interest in and commitment to the Maryhill train line services? [Interruption.]

Humza Yousaf

That is an important local matter, so I am not sure why Opposition members are laughing at it. I thank the member for raising the issue of Maryhill. I can give him an assurance on that. When there is a management change at the top, people of course look for continuity, which is important. I press the ScotRail Alliance to ensure that there is continuity. Phil Verster is currently the MD, and I know that network rail, Abellio and Arriva, as the employer of Alex Hynes, are working closely together to ensure continuity and that the handover is as smooth as possible. If the member has any issues or difficulties or any problems at all in getting that local matter resolved, I will of course be more than happy to have a conversation with him or with ScotRail, but I do not envisage there being any issues or problems with the recent management changes that have been announced.

Jamie Greene (West Scotland) (Con)

I am interested in the minister’s explanation of the funding for the one-week-free travel scheme. Transport Scotland’s website states the following:

“One of the most important aspects introduced for this Franchise, is that all penalties from SQUIRE are retained in a ring fenced fund for re-investment into the Scottish Rail Network. This fund is not used for repairs but for qualitative improvements or new facilities by agreement between both Transport Scotland and ScotRail.”

Indeed, in last week’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, Mr Verster told me that, if ScotRail felt that the money would best be used on other things, it had the right to choose to do so. He stated:

“I cannot vouch for whether the scheme goes ahead.”—[Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, 18 January 2017; c 32.]

Who came to the conclusion that that use of the SQUIRE fund falls within the fund’s remit? It is neither a qualitative improvement nor a new facility. Is the minister going to force ScotRail to pay for his announcement at the expense of other passenger improvements?

Humza Yousaf

No. I find that utterly ridiculous. When we made the announcement that £3 million would go towards a free week, Opposition members—including some from the Conservative party—demanded that ScotRail, as well as the Scottish taxpayer in the form of the Scottish Government, make a contribution. Now that it chooses to make that contribution, they are up in arms again. There is simply no pleasing members of the Opposition.

SQUIRE can be reinvested into the Scottish rail network for the benefit of the passenger. A week’s free travel is a benefit for the passenger.

Daniel Johnson (Edinburgh Southern) (Lab)

The vast majority of passengers on Scotland’s railways buy their tickets journey by journey. Labour’s plan for a fare freeze would have benefited every passenger in Scotland. Only season-ticket holders will benefit from the free-week scheme that was outlined in the minister’s statement. What percentage of passengers will benefit from the scheme?

Humza Yousaf

I will try to correct some of the inaccuracies in what Daniel Johnson just said. When I made the announcement at the end of last year, I did not say that the scheme would be for monthly and annual season-ticket holders only. In fact, 10 minutes ago, I said that we would also look to introduce discounts for people who travel for leisure or for work less frequently.

The independent evaluation that was done by Ernst & Young shows that Labour’s rail fare freeze would have cost up to £58 million—£58 million that would not have been invested in our railways.

“I’m irritated by any political party trying to get short term advantage from the railway industry. What has really irritated me is the campaign for rail fares freeze. This year, 2016, is meant to be the year we’re turning our backs on populism. It’s really done enough damage. But there's little more populist than a rail fares freeze, which is totally unrealistic.”

Those are not my words; they are the words of Tom Harris, the former Labour transport minister.

A Labour fare freeze would take £58 million out of the rail industry and has been condemned by somebody in the Labour Party who used to be a transport minister. We have announced a £3 million fares discount that will benefit railway passengers who travel daily, weekly, monthly and annually. Why does the Labour Party not welcome that and get behind rail passengers and the discounts that we are offering them?

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green)

I thank the minister for his statement. I am pleased that he is so excited about the state of Scotland’s railways, although I thought that we were all beyond the point of falling back on the support of Tom Harris in a debate about such matters.

I agree with the minister’s tribute to the people who work on Scotland’s railways for the efforts that they make. Many of them know that a public sector operator is the way to get long-term benefit from Scotland’s rail services. Will the minister confirm whether his intention is that a public sector operator would have to bid competitively against privatised operators, or is it simply to change the rules to ensure that the railways have a public sector, not-for-profit operator?

Humza Yousaf

Mr Harvie is being slightly flippant. There is nothing wrong with being excited about the plans that we have for our railways. Seventeen new trains, faster, longer and greener trains and connecting our seven main cities by high-speed trains—those are worth getting excited about. I say to him that, although I recognise the challenges, the service is not nearly as apocalyptic as some present it as being.

On the public sector bid, I thank Mr Harvie’s colleague, John Finnie, for being extremely positive about the discussions.

I want to ensure that I give Mr Harvie as much accurate information as possible. My understanding is that, because of the changes in the law, a public sector body could now apply. However, it would absolutely still need to compete. That is what we have said: it would need to compete with a private sector bid and to be part of the process. My understanding is that we do not have the legislative competence to change that. Of course, during the Smith negotiations, it was the unionist parties that stopped us having full control over our railways.

I will get more information to Mr Harvie on the question that he asks. I thank him and his party for the constructive way in which they have taken part in the discussions.

Mike Rumbles (North East Scotland) (LD)

Just before he resigned, Phil Verster made it clear to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee that he had not agreed to the transport minister’s attempted raid of £1.8 million from the SQUIRE fund to help to fund the Government’s proposal of a free week of travel.

The SQUIRE fund can be used for disabled access at stations but, in relation to access at Insch station, my constituents in the north-east have been turned down, because, they have been told, there is not enough money. How can the minister say in his statement that disabled access at stations such as Insch will not be impacted by that attempted financial raid for a week’s free travel?

Humza Yousaf

The member is incorrect to say that there is no money in the SQUIRE pot. There absolutely will be money in that fund, even when the contribution for the free week is made. As I have said, there is £2.06 million after the deductions for what will be spent. ScotRail will use £1.8 million of that money for the free week and we will put in the other £1.2 million, so there will still be money in the fund.

There are two other funds that are used for compliance with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. One is the access for all fund, £67 million of which the UK Government ring fenced for Scotland. Some 25 Scottish stations have been upgraded through that fund. That is the sort of fund that would be used for the substantial work that is required at Insch station, which I am more than happy to have a conversation with the member about.

There are other funds, as well. The member might be aware that, as part of the franchise, there is a minor works fund. That goes towards improving facilities and services to make them more accessible through more minor works, such as accessible toilets, dropped kerbs and hearing loops.

Although the money from the UK Government’s access for all fund is already committed, I am certain that that fund will reopen and I am more than happy to have a conversation with the member about Insch station and to discuss recommending that future money from the access for all fund be used for work at the station, to see where we can get with that.

The Presiding Officer

Seven members wish to ask questions. I ask all members to ask questions without any preamble and the minister to be as brief as possible in his replies.

Mairi Evans (Angus North and Mearns) (SNP)

How many of ScotRail’s trains that run late currently skip stops to improve their punctuality during rush hour? What action is being taken to improve the situation?

Humza Yousaf

As I said in my statement, if a stop is skipped, that gets marked down against performance. As I also said, that practice has reduced by around a third between period 9 and period 10—the period that has just passed—and it affects 0.59 per cent of all services booked.

Annie Wells (Glasgow) (Con)

Given that the position is a senior one, what process was followed in replacing the managing director of ScotRail? It took place at extremely short notice—barely a weekend. What changes to the role have warranted a starting salary that is 18 grand higher than that of the new managing director’s predecessor? Will the new managing director receive the same relocation package as his predecessor?

Humza Yousaf

Of course, those are matters for Network Rail, which, as a reclassified body, comes under the UK Department for Transport. The salary level has the sign-off of the Secretary of State for Transport in the UK Government. Annie Wells should direct her questions to him.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

Is the minister content with the fact that, one minute ago, the public performance measurement was 9 per cent better in Scotland than in the GB network, and that, at lunchtime today, there were two trains that were not running to schedule—both of which arrived early?

Humza Yousaf

I am grateful for that. The serious point is that, as I have said, there has been an improvement in performance over the past few railway periods. Performance is not where I want it to be or what it should be, and it is not enough to lift ScotRail out of performance improvement plan territory, but it is important to say that ScotRail is on the right trajectory.

James Kelly (Glasgow) (Lab)

At the time of the publication of the improvement plan, the public performance measure stood at 90.7 per cent. In the subsequent four periods, it did not reach 90.7 per cent. Can the minister explain why it has never recovered to the September figure, despite his improvement plan being in place?

Humza Yousaf

The member is asking why railway performance in the summer is not as good as railway performance in the winter. The reason why we use the moving annual average as the contractual figure is because it takes account of that seasonal variation. The member is not using the contractual figure—the standard industry measure; he is using what Donald Trump’s press secretary would call an alternative fact. He is using the wrong measure, and he is incorrect. The measure is the moving annual average. When we requested the improvement plan, the moving annual average was 89.6 per cent; it now stands at 90 per cent. By anybody’s measure, that is an improvement in performance.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

I have a register of interests and anyone can read it if they like.

Can the minister give me an assurance that the review group for the far north line will still go ahead, despite the change of management?

Humza Yousaf

Yes. The review group will go ahead, and its first meeting will take place in Inverness tomorrow morning. The member will be fully apprised of that. We know that there are and have been issues on the far north line. That is why there is a section of the improvement plan specifically for the far north line. We look forward to making those improvements for the people of the north.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Will the minister support the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers’ safer Scottish trains campaign, which includes an independent review of the operational safety of all driver-only operated trains and an urgent assessment of all services to ensure that they are fully accessible for passengers with disabilities and the impact of skip-stopping?

Humza Yousaf

As the member knows, of course—because she was there—I met her and the RMT to discuss the safer trains campaign. I would support many of the initiatives in the campaign. She knows that Transport Scotland is in dialogue with the RMT, and that I have doubts about the independent safety group, because the Office of Rail and Road, as the regulator, independently verifies, monitors and looks over the safety of the railways. However, I will continue the dialogue with the member and, of course, with the RMT.

Willie Coffey (Kilmarnock and Irvine Valley) (SNP)

Given that more than half the ScotRail delays that were of more than three minutes’ duration were as a result of faults attributed to Network Rail, what benefits does the minister see from further devolution of Network Rail’s functions, which he mentioned in his statement? [Interruption.]

Humza Yousaf

That is a hugely important point and I cannot for the life of me understand why Opposition members are groaning about it. Fifty-four per cent of delays are due to Network Rail. It is not just the Scottish Government that believes in the devolution of Network Rail; an excellent report by the Reform Scotland think tank, led by Tom Harris, a former transport minister in the UK Government, backed devolution of Network Rail. We fund a body that is responsible for major projects in Scotland, for the track and infrastructure and for more than half of the delays on the network. It makes sense to me that that body should be accountable not just to the Government but to the Parliament. Nevertheless, we have Opposition members groaning in dissatisfaction. The point about the devolution of Network Rail is important. We will continue to push for it, and I hope that other parties will join us.

The Presiding Officer

I am particularly grateful to the last seven members for their performance, punctuality and keeping to time.