Green/Independent Amendment in Rail Debate 30/05/2013

Below you can find the Green/Independent Group’s contribution to the Rail debate in the Scottish Parliament 30/05/2013. At the bottom of the page is a briefing from Transform which was mentioned throughout the debate. 

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green): I welcome the debate, and I see positive things to celebrate about the state of our railways, which is why the Green and Independent amendment does not seek to delete the whole of the Government’s motion. However, we part company with the Government on the issue of franchising. Although there may be benefits to the collaborative approach with the industry that the Government’s motion sets out, we see the possibility of greater benefits from another approach.

There is a need for the travelling public to be much more fully involved in future decisions about franchising. Current train operating companies may be private-sector profit-seeking businesses, but Scotland’s railways are public services, and the public should be centrally involved in setting the priorities.

I want all the options to be open for Scotland in restoring a public service ethos to our rail business. We on the Green side of the chamber hope that Scotland will soon take on the powers to change UK legislation and open up new possibilities, which would include Labour’s option of a mutual or not-for-profit franchisee. Such a bid could be made at the moment, but realistically it will not materialise out of thin air. That option needs Government support, which would at present be inhibited. Private-sector bidders would be able to oppose such Government support for a not-for-profit operator, but we could in future remove that barrier.

We could go further and look again at the whole concept of franchising or at least permit publicly owned bodies to bid against other competitors. Against a public subsidy of just over £300 million in 2011-12, more than £20 million was taken out as profit in the ScotRail franchise. As Alex Johnstone said, the Scottish Government is then beholden to a haggling process to see whether any of that money can be put back into reinvestment. That is a substantial proportion of the public subsidy that we are paying.

The ideological obsession with privatisation reveals itself in relation to the east coast franchise. We have seen two private sector failures, and we have seen public sector rescue followed by broadly successful public sector management. Punctuality levels are up, and customer satisfaction on the line is at its highest ever level. More than £800 million has been returned to the taxpayer. The state-run east coast rail service requires less public subsidy than any of the 15 privately run rail franchises in Britain. That is according to the rail regulator. In April this year, it reported that the net subsidy for the east coast line was 1 per cent of its income compared with an average of 32 per cent.

As far as we understand, the UK Government has invited bids without reference to the Scottish Government or the interests of the travelling public in Scotland. That is a damning indictment of the ideological obsession with what should be a public service being run for private profit.

I very much welcome the briefing paper from Transform Scotland and I welcome the Liberal Democrat amendment, which refers to it. If we want rail to continue to grow not as part of a more-of-everything approach but to reduce car use—which the minister’s motion claims as a priority—there is a real need to ensure that rail services are not only reliable and affordable in absolute terms but competitive with road journeys on cost and journey time.

The Transform Scotland proposals are of direct relevance to that issue. For example, Transform Scotland’s proposals on the Highland main line cite the Edinburgh to Aberdeen comparison alongside the Edinburgh to Newcastle comparison. Those train journeys are of roughly the same distance—124 miles and 130 miles—and yet the one from Edinburgh to Aberdeen is 50 minutes slower than the one to Newcastle.

Transform Scotland said that it might have been a wee bit too conservative in the figures on the Perth to Inverness journey times in its briefing. The figures that it used, which are based on the AA’s figures, suggest that the leg from Perth to Inverness should take two hours and 33 minutes by car, but Transport Scotland’s figures suggest that the journey is typically 90 minutes to 110 minutes by car, which compares very poorly with the train service.

We need to prioritise the relatively modest investment that would be required to improve the Highland main line and make those services competitive for the future. Transform Scotland has also made proposals for the Edinburgh to Perth direct line. Reinstating that would not only give the chance for shorter intercity journeys within Scotland but free up capacity for improved local services in Fife.

Notwithstanding Tavish Scott’s assertions about the early days of devolution, for years we have seen a heavy emphasis on road investment. We need only to follow the money. Successive Scottish Administrations have prioritised road spending. The M74 was extended while Glasgow crossrail plans gathered dust on the shelf. The Aberdeen western peripheral route was pushed through on spurious cost projections while the Aberdeen crossrail suffers the same fate as its Glasgow comparator.

Current spending on the A9 and the additional Forth road bridge not only represent resources being diverted to road when they could have improved our rail infrastructure but could lead to a threat to the long-term competitiveness of rail services in the future.

I urge the Scottish Government to acknowledge not only what is good but what needs to be much better.
I move amendment S4M-06766.4.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind): The debate has been interesting. The minister mentioned Borders rail, and I think that all members recognise the benefits that are associated with such an expansion. There was mention of the introduction of two additional trains to the north at the tail end of 2011, which was very welcome, but that line is now at capacity, which is an issue to which I will return. Rail and cycle hubs were mentioned, but—as my colleague Dave Thompson said—we need to get the coach design right for that.

There has been a lot of talk about the Aberdeen to Inverness service and the Highland main line, and it would be helpful to hear some clarification on definitive timescales from the minister in his closing speech. However, enhancements to the Oban service—the Sunday services—are welcome.

A practical example that my colleague Dave Thompson also mentioned is the opening of the Conon rail link. It is a modest construction in which Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Highland Council and the Scottish Government were involved.

Two additional carriages were provided during the significant road works at the Kessock bridge. Elaine Murray and Claudia Beamish mentioned Wales. The principles that Claudia Beamish outlined are commendable. I certainly agree that more imagination is required.
The Independent/Green amendment talks about recognising the constraints that are placed on the ScotRail franchise. Those constraints come in the form of section 25 of the Railways Act 1993, which states that the public sector cannot be a franchisee. Of course, as the minister mentioned, there is no corresponding ban on foreign public sector bodies being able to bid for and operate UK franchises. That explains why there is a German state-owned Deutsche Bahn locomotive in Waverley now and again, courtesy of Deutsche Bahn’s involvement with Arriva.

The amendment also talks about the Scottish Government ensuring
“greater transparency in its franchise decisions”.

Stewart Stevenson (Intervention): Just for clarity, I think that the locomotive that John Finnie mentions is actually on lease to ScotRail rather than being directly used by Deutsche Bahn.

John Finnie: I think that Stewart Stevenson will find that Deutsche Bahn operates with Arriva. Whatever—the principle stands. Ken Macintosh and others mentioned greater transparency in franchise decisions. Section 30 of the 1993 act says:
“The Authority shall provide, or secure the provision of, services”.
Our amendment certainly talks about providing, rather than securing the provision of, services.

There is an obvious way to remove constraints. Our amendment also talks about
“better value for the public investment in Scotland’s railways”. In 2010, the dividends paid to ScotRail’s shareholders could have paid for a 7 per cent reduction in fares if the service had been under public ownership. I think that that would enjoy widespread public support.
On a number of occasions, I have asked the minister about nationalisation and received the reply that we heard today, and have heard many times, that it is for individual bidders to come forward. Indeed, he has mentioned the Strathclyde partnership for transport previously in that regard.

Like my colleague Patrick Harvie, I am interested in what Ken Macintosh said. I hope that the minister will listen to the proposal and engage in the detail, because we all want to ensure the best possible service, in which, to my mind, there is no room for profit.

The Brown review was also touched on. In a previous reply to me, the minister said that the extent to which it would have an impact was not yet known. Perhaps he could let us know about any lessons that have been learned from that.

In our amendment, we condemn the UK Government’s plan to reprivatise the east coast line. As has been said, the east coast service requires less public subsidy than the 15 privately run franchises in Britain, according to a report from the rail regulator. I commend that report to my colleague Alex Johnstone, who rightly said that it is important that we do not make the same mistakes. It is clear that the UK Government is intent on making a mistake by returning the east coast line to private hands, with a new operator taking over by 2015.

The line has been in the control of the Department for Transport since 2009. My colleague Patrick Harvie has given members the figures: in the past three and a half years, £640 million has been returned to the taxpayer, and it is estimated that the figure will be £800 million by the end of the current year. As has been said, the operator is perfectly capable of providing fine fare for Mr Fraser and others. It was discourteous that reprivatisation was not mentioned to the Scottish Government.

In our amendment, we express concern about the road building programme. It is clear that vast sums for road building are available to take minutes off journeys and that the priority remains the motor car—the motor car is king.

Bruce Crawford (intervention): Given John Finnie’s comments on the road network, does he also object to the upgrading of the A9?

John Finnie: If Bruce Crawford reads the amendment, he will find out that it refers to that.

The Scottish Government is committing £3 billion to the dualling of the A9 to reduce journey times, and it is our view that that money could be better spent. Indeed, there are people who believe that it would be better spent on the A82.

Mary Scanlon (Highlands and Islands) (Con) (Intervention): Will John Finnie give way?

John Finnie: No. Sorry.

More freight being taken off the roads and put on to rail would mean less pressure on the roads.
In the short time that I have left, I will mention a few additional concerns, of which one is the carriage by rail of exotic nuclear fuels from Dounreay. Another is the fragmentation of ScotRail services, with a separate franchise for the Caledonian sleeper, which concerns many people. The clauses in the franchise that allow the reimbursement to private operators of revenue lost as a result of industrial action is also a matter of concern.
The First Minister was quoted in The Herald on 6 August 2008 as saying:
“Railways must at least compete with the roads”.

That is certainly not the case. The minister has been asked about the Railways Act 1993, but as yet there are no plans to remove profit from the public service that is Scotland’s rail network. That is not transformation; it is the status quo. The public must be central to the provision of public services.

Ends

Briefing: 2013-05-30 — Transforming Scotland’s Railways debate — Transform Scotland briefing