Labour’s transport spokeswoman says to get people out of their cars – buses and trains need to become more about service and less about profit
Labour in particular has, time after time, brought forward motions and demanded statements from the Government on various topics: from rail services between Edinburgh and Glasgow, ferry links, to bus grants.
Transport has also brought them a rare SNP scalp after then MSP Charlie Gordon demanded that Stewart Stevenson stand down in the wake of the protracted motorway delays in the severe winter of 2010.
Dumfriesshire MSP Elaine Murray took over the shadow transport brief for Labour in 2012 as well as housing and in recent weeks, the Labour offensive has shown no sign of letting up.
She led a debate in the chamber in September, when she accused the Government and transport minister, Keith Brown, of going back on their manifesto promises vis-à-vis the rail link between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and said there was a need to look at more not-for-profit companies taking on franchises in the wake of the West Coast rail fiasco.
She told Holyrood that the SNP since 2007 had not put “sufficient emphasis” on public transport and that her party’s introduction of concessionary bus fares and the creation of Quality Bus Partnerships shows they were attempting to put public transport first when they were last in power.
“I think we had a stronger commitment to public transport. Sometimes that meant we put more money into the public transport than we did on roads,” she said.
“We had some criticism from others on the investment in the road network, but felt when we were in power that we needed to do what we could to improve public transport. I think there does seem to be a difference in direction that there seems to be more of an interest in road transport with this government.” Of course, one of the major road transport projects brought forward by the SNP in the previous parliament, when they were a minority administration, was the new Forth Crossing which is due to open in 2016 and will cost between £1.47bn and £1.62bn – although this was a lot less than the original estimate of £2.3bn.
At the time, the bridge plan was backed by Labour, with only the Green Party saying they believed an alternative should have been found.
Murray now says she believes this may have been a mistake as one of the SNP’s flagship projects is “sucking in a great deal of money.” “Our position was that we supported that at the time. I have to say, personally, I do wonder whether we were right. I wonder whether there were other alternatives that could have been explored which wouldn’t have been as expensive.
“Looking back, perhaps the Greens had a point, I sometimes think that the case for replacement was to a certain extent overblown.
“There’s always an impetus from government to have something that they can show they’ve delivered and the Forth Road Bridge will be that for the SNP Government.
“Clearly there are parts of the project that will be creating employment here, it’s got to be constructed here, for a start.
“I think there’s a balance between a big project, which the Government likes to show as its flagship, and smaller projects, which could have been paid for with all that money, which would have created employment in other areas.
“The Government are claiming the Scottish Futures Trust have saved money on the project, but it is still a major commitment of funding.
I’m not really speaking on behalf of all my colleagues, but I think that Patrick Harvie is right, there may have been other alternatives that should have been explored.” Public transport, she says, is in need of a lot of improvement and she is critical that while bus and train fares are often higher in Scotland and the UK than in other parts of Europe, the standard is lower.
When she travels from her constituency, with an office in Dumfries, to Edinburgh, she most often drives. Her best alternative is a bus ride to Lockerbie and a packed train to the capital, where she will have to stand.
Her colleague, and former leader, Iain Gray, is currently working on a private member’s bill on reregulation of buses and she said she wants to see a model of not-for-profit companies coming in to take over rail franchises.
This belief has been bolstered by recent problems over the West Coast Main Line, which saw First Group – which has its headquarters in Scotland – awarded the new contract, only to see Virgin boss, Richard Branson, object to the move and a U-turn by the UK Government.
It was something that the Scottish Government had no involvement in, but Murray argued in the Parliament that it strengthened the case for not-for-profit companies taking over the running of services.
“I think everybody would agree, although maybe not the UK Government, that it has been absolutely shambolic. It is astonishing that any government body would mishandle an important franchise to that extent.
“I have to say, I was a bit anxious about First Group getting the franchise. The TransPennine service, which is run by First, comes across the border into Lockerbie and goes into Edinburgh, it is a horrendous service.
“A few weeks ago, I was on one and it was absolutely packed, to the extent that somebody collapsed – it was quite a warm day. There was difficulty in getting anybody to them because it was so packed.
“I emailed Tim O’Toole [First Group chief executive] from the train and said, ‘I hope you’re not intending to run the West Coast Main Line in the way you run the TransPennine service’.” Although the Scottish Government has no say over this part of the rail network, she has criticised the SNP for the parts it does control, and in particular, what she claims was the SNP going back on its promises to improve the Edinburgh to Glasgow rail route.
In a parliamentary debate, she said the £1bn plans, part of the SNP’s manifesto, which would have seen the electrifi cation of 200 miles of track, had been scaled back – as a result, pledges to cut journey times and improve services would not be met.
She said: “We were certainly critical on that because we felt it was an unnecessary cut and it was handled extremely badly as well.Her party’s criticism was countered by claims from the SNP that they should welcome the extra investment being made in rail infrastructure.
“It’s not what they said in their manifesto they were going to do. Th ey made commitments in terms of frequency of services, cuts in rail times and so on – that will not happen now.” More action is needed, she says, to ensure better bus services and she reiterates a common criticism that bus services in certain areas tend to be dominated by one or two big players.
“What I would like to see is more emphasis on a more reliable service. Th e problem in the UK is we don’t have a very good service and our fares are high. Some of that is because they are all privatised. We’re not running them as a service, we’re running them for profit.two companies that provide smaller services, but Stagecoach is the main provider. Particularly in a rural area, where a lot of services have to be subsidised, if you have that sort of domination, they can ask the passenger transport subsidy for what they want in terms of subsidy because there’s no one else to do it anymore.” She acknowledges that there is not the money to attempt anything as radical as a renationalisation of public transport.“Ultimately, we do need to look at how we shift the balance back to public transport being a service and an environmental benefit.”