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21 February 2008

S3M-916 Rail Improvements (Central Scotland)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 21 February 2008

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]
... ... ...
Rail Improvements
(Central Scotland)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-916, in the name of Jamie Hepburn, on central Scotland rail improvements. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament welcomes the Scottish Government's plans to electrify the Glasgow to Edinburgh and Cumbernauld railway lines; believes that this will have a positive effect on the commuting experience for people across Scotland, particularly those in central Scotland; recognises the importance of providing alternatives to the private car to reduce congestion and pollution and of opening up social and economic opportunities to the 32 per cent of Scottish households that do not have access to a car; notes the campaigns by various rail user groups calling for the introduction of a national railcard scheme which would provide discounted travel to all regular train users, and believes that such a scheme should be considered for introduction in Scotland.

17:08
... ... ...
17:32

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): I thank Jamie Hepburn for initiating the debate and for recognising the Scottish Government's commitment to improving the rail network. We certainly aim to make the network more attractive to more passengers by providing journeys of high quality and high reliability that offer a genuine alternative to the car.

Since coming into ministerial office, I have made more than 200 journeys by train and rather fewer than that number with the Government car service. I arrived at Parliament today on the 06:30 from Linlithgow. This particular minister is indeed a user of the rail network.

Let me address some points that members raised before I turn to my core statement. At heart, Jamie Hepburn's speech was a plea for a simplification of the fares structure. I must say that I have some sympathy with that, as the current structure can be quite difficult to navigate. For example, the over-55 discount that is currently available is an episodic promotion that continues until the end of March, but several of my friends who—like me—are over 55 were unaware of it despite the fact that they regularly use the train.

By contrast, Alex Johnstone wanted a more complex fares system. I was struck by a vision of what it might be like to arrive at Upper Tyndrum or Corrour station where one had to negotiate on an easyJet basis for the most discounted fare from that station on a particular day. I was less attracted to Alex Johnstone's proposal, but I think that the heart of his suggestion was the desire to drive up utilisation and we are all on track for that.

Hugh O'Donnell raised the issue of speeding up services for commuters. There will be additional connections between Edinburgh and Glasgow when the Airdrie to Bathgate line opens. On the main Edinburgh to Glasgow via Falkirk line, we are looking at increasing the number of services to six per hour, two of which will be direct Edinburgh to Glasgow services, which are the ones that deliver the higher speed. We will also preserve, maintain and enhance the speed for the local connections at Polmont, Falkirk High and Linlithgow. I hope that taking direct, point-to-point traffic off those services will help to reduce overcrowding.

Christopher Harvie praised Deutsche Bahn. In my experience, it has the best database of timetable information, which covers the whole of Europe. I have used it on a number of occasions. I look forward to seeing how its ownership of EWS—English, Welsh & Scottish Railway Ltd—makes a contribution.

Mary Mulligan tells me that I have the Blackridge station report in my in-tray. I have not got to that part of my in-tray, but I will certainly give the report close attention because I share Mary Mulligan's interest in making the service the best that it can be.

We are improving the Edinburgh to Glasgow routes and making improvements throughout central Scotland. The electrification of the core route via Falkirk, the route to Stirling and Dunblane and the Cumbernauld line will have a positive impact on commuters throughout central Scotland. Services will be more reliable, they will be quieter, they will have more capacity, and they will be generally more attractive.

However, we are doing more than electrifying services. We are also committed to boosting the number of services. There will be new services from Glasgow Central to Edinburgh and we will improve connections from the south and west of Glasgow and from Prestwick and Glasgow airports to Edinburgh. There will be at least an extra 200 seats per hour with a journey time of a little more than an hour.

As Christopher Harvie said, our rail network opened in central Scotland in 1840. It took off the front of the garden of a house that I used to live in, much to the regret of the person who owned it then. Passenger numbers are at their highest since the 1960s and the number of passengers who choose to use ScotRail services has grown by 24 per cent since the start of the franchise. That is excellent news. In the financial year to April 2007, we had 77.3 million passengers, and the upward trend has continued since then, with a 4.7 per cent increase in passenger numbers compared with the same time last year.

Freight, too, has increased. In the financial year to April 2006, 14 million tonnes of freight was lifted by rail in Scotland, including cross-border freight.

That represents a 70 per cent increase in a three-year period. However, we can do better and we can do more. We have put in place gauge relief all the way up to Elgin, thereby connecting the central belt of Scotland, which is the subject of tonight's debate, to wider Scotland.

The performance of First ScotRail has also improved. In the past 12 months, delays have been 10 per cent lower than in the previous year. Performance for the industry as a whole has seen delays reduce by 6 per cent. The public performance measure is set to exceed 90 per cent for the moving target for the first time since October 2000.

People are making positive choices to use the train and we believe that they will continue to do so. I purchase my senior discount card for £20 each year and I get a third off fares. I am certainly prepared to discuss with the Department for Transport the idea of a card that is funded by use of the card. Of course, the idea may well have ramifications beyond the borders of Scotland.

We are funding station improvements, additional station stops, which benefit passengers, and increased opportunities for people to use the rail service. The additional evening service from Edinburgh to North Berwick is but one example.

Transport Scotland will continue its multimodal assessment of transport investment needs throughout Scotland. Longer-term options such as even faster routes will be considered in the strategic transport projects review alongside road and bus options, and the national planning framework gives our aspiration to electrify the whole network by 2030.

There is much to be proud of. I thank Jamie Hepburn for bringing the matter to the chamber for debate. I hope that members agree that rail in Scotland is delivering both for our people and for our economy.

Meeting closed at 17:40

S3M-1386 Scottish Water [Closing Speech]

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 21 February 2008

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

Scottish Water

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S3M-1386, in the name of Derek Brownlee, on the future of Scottish Water. I invite members who wish to speak to press their request-to-speak buttons now. The debate is a little undersubscribed, so anybody who would like to speak would be welcome.

Mr Brownlee has seven minutes in theory, but we are a little relaxed about the time.

09:15
... ... ...
10:20

Stewart Stevenson: The intervention that we have just had from the Conservatives was interesting. It seemed to focus on the minutiae of ownership of an organisation rather than—

Alex Johnstone: It is the key to whole thing.

Stewart Stevenson: That is the point: it is not the key to the problem. The key to the problem is to ask what needs to be delivered for what public benefit. Ownership is only a mechanism that can influence that outcome. It is a sideshow to the real issue, which is whether Scottish Water is delivering for the Scottish people and whether there is more that it can do to do that.

In a sense, the ownership mechanism can be positive or negative, whatever its style. Northern Rock is an entirely different animal from the Royal Bank of Scotland: one is a failing organisation; the other is one of the world's leading banks. They followed a similar model of ownership, so there is a clear disconnect between ownership and achievement.

I am surprised that the party of pragmatism—which the Tories claim to be—should focus on ownership rather than outcomes and what is delivered. That is the heart of the debate, and I hope that we will address it.

Derek Brownlee: The Government's futures trust consultation document says that its starting point is pragmatic. We are agreed on that, but the futures trust would be a private company that would deliver public benefit. Why could that approach not be considered for Scottish Water?

Stewart Stevenson: The private sector is a critical part of our economy. If we can find ways of reducing the cost of borrowing for public projects, which is what we are trying to do with the futures trust mechanism, we should of course pursue it. I am sure that we will have the support of all who examine the numbers.

Speaking of numbers, there were almost none from the Conservatives to back up the proposition that they laid before us. One would expect the party of money to be able to provide figures, but it signally failed to do so. Des McNulty commented that mutualisation appeared to be expensive. Substantial costs would certainly be associated with the conversion to a mutual model for no clear, pragmatic benefit for Scottish Water's customers and the broader community of Scotland.

Liam McArthur referred to meters and to the charitable exemption. There is a consultation on charging, which will close next week, if I recall correctly. I hope that all members will add their tuppenceworth—or their £400 million-worth, in the Tories' case—to that consultation. The exemption is a little more limited than was suggested, in that it covers charities only while they remain in their existing premises. There are some clear discrepancies and issues that will need to be examined when we get the results of the consultation, and members can be sure that the Government will examine them.

I realise that Helen Eadie probably came to the chamber with her speech already written, but I make it absolutely clear to her that we are not supporting mutualisation.

Patrick Harvie: Will Stewart Stevenson give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I think that I am running out of time but I will let Patrick Harvie in if he is brief.

Patrick Harvie: I will be brief in asking why, if the Government rejects mutualisation and the Labour Party supports public ownership, we are wasting time on a review of an option that has already been rejected.

Stewart Stevenson: There is an important point there: it is the Government's role to review continuously the operation of everything in government. The Labour Party amendment supports precisely that idea because it

"calls on the Scottish Government to keep"

the matter "under review". Of course we should do that. We would be roundly criticised if we did not keep matters under review, not just in relation to Scottish Water but across the public sector. I repeat that it is normal, natural and necessary to do that, so of course we will do it, in line with the Labour Party amendment.

Mutualisation is really a financial chimera that is simply a surrogate for privatisation. It is not about delivering the services that the people in Scotland want or about supporting Scottish Water and building on its success of recent years. Scottish Water has a high-quality board with a load of experience. It has the people on board to succeed. It is clear that we should keep the structure, personnel and financing of all public services under review, but that does not mean that we should take a radical shift into the sands of mutualisation.

10:26

S3M-1386 Scottish Water [Opening Speech]

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 21 February 2008

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

Scottish Water

The Presiding Officer (Alex Fergusson): Good morning. The first item of business is a debate on motion S3M-1386, in the name of Derek Brownlee, on the future of Scottish Water. I invite members who wish to speak to press their request-to-speak buttons now. The debate is a little undersubscribed, so anybody who would like to speak would be welcome.

Mr Brownlee has seven minutes in theory, but we are a little relaxed about the time.

09:15
... ... ...
09:36

The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): In considering today's motion and amendments, we need to keep in mind the unique water industry model that we have in Scotland. The Tory press release of yesterday stated:

"If the Scottish Government is confident that a state-owned Scottish Water is the best option, then it has nothing to fear from a review."

We are confident and we do not fear a review. Indeed, to use a phrase that I have used before, such a review by a new Government would be normal, natural and necessary. We have, of course, examined the status of Scottish Water, and we are happy to examine it further if the motion or amendments are agreed to at decision time.

Derek Brownlee: On 24 May, John Swinney said:

"We will not take forward the recommendation"

of the Howat report

"to turn Scottish Water into a mutual company ... Scottish Water will retain its current status. That is our clear policy position."—[Official Report, 24 May 2007; c 134.]

Jim Mather then said that Scottish Water would not move towards mutualisation under an SNP Government. Is there a U-turn?

Stewart Stevenson: The member should listen to what I said, which was:

"If the Scottish Government is confident that a state-owned Scottish Water is the best option, then it has nothing to fear from a review."

I repeat: we are confident and we do not fear a review.

We have a system that combines the best parts of the privatised industry in England and Wales with, of course, the strengths and ethos of a public sector organisation. The result is a publicly owned water business that is subject to tough independent economic and quality regulation. The system ensures that ministers, not special interest groups, set the strategic direction for the industry on behalf of all the people of Scotland.

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): On regulation, is the minister happy with Scottish Water's current leakage rate? It failed to meet its target by 44 million litres a day, which is the equivalent of 17 Olympic swimming pools.

Stewart Stevenson: The leakage programme started a couple of years ago. The first target was missed by some 4 per cent, which was disappointing. However, Scottish Water has made substantial progress. Indeed, it is doing substantially better on leakage than many of the privately owned companies south of the border. I agree that leakage is an area for improvement, and improvement will be achieved. The public ownership of Scottish Water is a way of ensuring that the Government can act in the customer interest on leaks, as in many other areas.

Patrick Harvie (Glasgow) (Green): I am struggling to understand the purpose of the review, given that the Government is committed to public ownership. Is not mutual ownership incompatible with public ownership? If so, what is the point of the review?

Stewart Stevenson: I am happy to review the status of Scottish Water because I am confident that the review will tell us that we are heading in the right direction. [Interruption.]

The Presiding Officer: Mr Johnstone.

Stewart Stevenson: I am not afraid of a review and I know that others in the Parliament are not afraid of a review. I do not intend that we head towards mutualisation.

I turn to highlight a number of areas. First, average household water charges in Scotland are lower than the average in England and Wales. Furthermore, in Scotland, charges will rise by less than inflation, whereas in England and Wales they will rise by more than inflation. Secondly, in Scotland, we have a company that is delivering for its customers—Scottish Water is outperforming its regulatory settlement and rapidly improving its customer service performance. It is therefore of little surprise that, last year, Scottish Water was judged to be one of the top utilities in the UK by its peers. That is a superb achievement on which I congratulate it. We need only compare that with the situation in England and Wales, where several companies have been fined for lying about their treatment of their customers. The water industry commissioner said that "Scottish Water's achievement" in reducing its operating costs

"is unprecedented in the UK water industry."

The Government does not believe in the current model as a matter of dogma; we believe in it because it works. It is not hard to think of one or two private sector businesses that are not well run, but in Scottish Water we have a high-quality board with experience from the public and private sectors that has the right skills to take forward the organisation.

It is important that we do not take steps to undermine the progress that has been made in recent years. Scottish Water is six years old, which makes it quite a young organisation. In that time, it has made huge improvements, and it wants to make many more.

Liam McArthur: Will the minister give way?

Stewart Stevenson: I think that I am out of time.

The Presiding Officer: Time allows it.

Liam McArthur: The minister referred to the quality of Scottish Water management and the progress that the company has made, which the Liberal Democrats do not dispute. However, in terms of attracting high-quality personnel and management going forward, does he agree that the current model constrains Scottish Water while mutualisation would set it free?

Stewart Stevenson: If I may, I will make a side comment. Standard Life—of which I was a huge defender—provides an interesting example of the mutual model. Ultimately, we found that the company had to go for a stock market listing because of the mutual model constraints. I accept that there is a variety of mutual models. Nonetheless, anyone who suggests that mutualisation is a panacea should examine matters more carefully, particularly when we have a successful model that is delivering for the people of Scotland.

We have tough targets for the future and we need to give Scottish Water space to rise to the challenge. We should, of course, keep an open mind and continue to review the options, but the clear consensus is that Scottish Water is doing well. The suggestion that we should change the model is not particularly robust. I am happy to support the Labour amendment, which strikes the right balance.

... ... ...

09:42

7 February 2008

S3M-1118 Edinburgh Park Railway Station

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 7 February 2008

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

... ... ...
Edinburgh Park Railway Station

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S3M-1118, in the name of Margaret Smith, on Edinburgh Park railway station. It will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament commends the continuing economic contribution made by Edinburgh Park not only to Edinburgh's economy but to Scotland as whole; congratulates the park on its numerous green initiatives encouraging employees to choose public transport and ease the heavily congested road system surrounding the park; understands that a comprehensive public transport infrastructure is integral to the further growth of this area; considers that there should be clarification as to exactly why Edinburgh Park may not be included on the main Edinburgh to Glasgow line until 2016, forcing employees travelling from the west to travel on to Haymarket Station before doubling back on themselves; acknowledges that, in order to increase connectivity across Scotland, improve business links with Glasgow and aid environmental initiatives, Edinburgh Park must be included on this line as a matter of urgency, and believes that Edinburgh Park must be included as a stop on the Glasgow to Edinburgh mainline without further delay.

17:05

... ... ...
The Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change (Stewart Stevenson): Welcome to the rail enthusiasts club—that is clearly what we are tonight. I thank Margaret Smith for securing this debate on an interesting subject that is of key importance to the local economy. I agree absolutely with Sarah Boyack that we must consider the long-term interest—it is why I am interested in ensuring that we maximise our investment at Edinburgh Park. To respond to her point about city centre to city centre times, we have the objective of getting those down to about 35 minutes, which we believe is credible through incremental rather than fundamental change.

David Whitton: My constituency stands on the railway line—in fact, the railway is the dividing line between my constituency and the next one. Many people travel from Lenzie to Croy and then on. Will the minister consider carrying out an analysis of the number of people who travel from Lenzie and Croy to Edinburgh Park and the number who travel to Edinburgh Park from Falkirk, Polmont and Linlithgow? That could lend the fast service from Edinburgh to Glasgow some scope to stop at Edinburgh Park, because it might then not have to stop at Falkirk, Polmont and Linlithgow and we could improve the commuter service from those places.

Stewart Stevenson: I will return to David Whitton's point, which is reasonable.

Edinburgh Park will probably be the hotspot for economic development in central Scotland in the coming years, building on the substantial growth that has already occurred there. There are huge workforces and the area is an important economic contributor to Edinburgh and beyond. The rail element, which came through the opening of Edinburgh Park station in December 2003, involved a big joint venture and substantial investment.

At present, four trains call at Edinburgh Park each hour. It is probably advisable for people who are coming from the west to change at Linlithgow. That—rather than going to Haymarket—adds approximately five minutes to their journey.

I will highlight one fact that might give us some insight. Some class 158 trains go from Dunblane to Edinburgh—class 158s also operate on the main Glasgow to Edinburgh line—but only one service stops at Edinburgh Park. By coincidence, the journey time difference is three minutes. That is not to say that one cannot consider other measures to bring the time difference down, but it gives us a feel for the idea that the stop is likely to add three minutes. Our objective is to get frequency on the Edinburgh to Glasgow line up from four trains an hour to six an hour. That would give us substantial scope to address some of the needs of the west of Edinburgh in the longer term.

There has been some discussion of the number of people who use Edinburgh Park station. The number that I have is 1,000. Margaret Smith has 1,500, but let us not fall out over that. She has suggested that 900 more people could use Edinburgh Park. The important point is our belief that there is a £60 million value for every minute we can get off the journey time between Edinburgh and Glasgow—£60 million per minute. If services stop at Edinburgh Park, that creates an advantage for the people who get off there, but a disadvantage—which we can measure to some extent—for those whose journey is lengthened. The trick is to get the balance right. The number of people who use Edinburgh Park is relatively modest compared with the 30,000 a day who commute to the area—in that sense, we are tapping only a small part of the potential for travel to work at Edinburgh Park—and the 20,000 a day who travel between Edinburgh and Glasgow.

We need to understand what the potential is, which brings us to the important point that we do not have sufficient information about the unrealised potential for travel to work at Edinburgh Park. There have been several attempts to get information. I have asked officials to be more proactive on the matter and to engage directly with businesses in Edinburgh Park, so that we can more properly understand where people are coming from to work there.

The Airdrie to Bathgate line will provide the direct connection between Glasgow and Edinburgh Park, when that service is implemented in 2010. We have good connections from Polmont and Linlithgow to Edinburgh Park, and from Bathgate more generally, but that leaves the question of connections from Falkirk High relatively unresolved. I hope that improved information will help us to understand what we can do in that regard. The issue is complex; there is an interlocking set of advantages and disadvantages that we have to examine carefully.

Margaret Smith: If I can pull together the mood of the meeting, it seems likely that people might, in the short term—before the changes with the Airdrie to Bathgate line—accept the benefits of an occasional direct stop being opened up, possibly in the intermittent way that has been talked about. Has that suggestion been modelled by Transport Scotland or Network Rail?

Stewart Stevenson: Modelling is an imperfect science and, at the moment, the indications are that the disbenefits significantly outweigh the benefits.

Robin Harper talked about signalling, which is a big constraint on our ability to improve the network. There is a lack of signalling engineers, as we have seen elsewhere. In 2015 or thereby, the European signalling system—a moving block system, which will improve capacity—may come in. As one increases speed, the gap between trains has to increase, so the capacity of the line is reduced. The issue is complex.

I thank Margaret Smith for initiating the debate. We are moving towards having more stops at Edinburgh Park. I am open to considering every opportunity to draw forward the point at which we can increase stops there, but I believe that Edinburgh Park will undoubtedly be a very important part of our future rail system. I worked for 20 years at Sighthill and I wish that I had had the station at that time.

Meeting closed at 17:40.

Stewart Stevenson
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