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Transport Minister Fiona Hyslop: 'Absolutely there are challenges'

Fiona Hyslop

Transport Minister Fiona Hyslop: 'Absolutely there are challenges'

Holyrood: You have a lot of experience in government, having held various roles including Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs. What skills and experiences do you think you bring from past ministerial work to the new role that will help in meeting some of the clear challenges in the transport brief now?

Fiona Hyslop: Everyone keeps calling me experienced and I’m sure they mean it as a compliment. Of course, I’ve encountered the observations that my experience is being brought to bear on what is perceived to be a challenging portfolio – and absolutely, there are challenges, but there is also a lot of crossover with previous roles and a tremendous amount of opportunity. 
For Culture and External Affairs, it’s about celebrating people and communities, promoting their stories and that of Scotland, both at home and internationally. 

People and communities are again at the heart of the transport portfolio, bringing them into the decision-making process and ensuring our transport system is responsive to their needs. My focus now is on delivery – ensuring the strategies and vision that we have outlined for transport here in Scotland can be best realised for people right across the country.

Holyrood: You seemed happy being on the backbenches and playing a full role in committee work. Were you surprised to be invited back into government and did you have any hesitation about leaving behind the work you were doing? 

FH: I was delighted to be invited back to government as Minister for Transport. I was enjoying the challenge that comes with being deputy convener of the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, which does good work in ensuring the government is on the right track, particularly around climate action. I gained a lot of technical knowledge during my time with the committee, which certainly made the transition into the portfolio easier. Indeed, my former committee colleagues have wasted no time in holding me to account for our record on transport – and I would expect nothing less.

Holyrood: The trial to remove peak fares from trains starts next month. This is clearly to be welcomed, so how will success be measured? 

FH: This is indeed a bold initiative, the first of its kind in the UK, and it is possible to deliver because we have taken ScotRail into public ownership. 

We know that price and simplicity is crucial for people when choosing how to travel. So the purpose of this pilot is to identify if it helps reduce car use and makes rail travel more affordable and accessible during its six-month period and to assess, using standard techniques, whether it represents value for money.

There are three main strands to monitoring and evaluating the outcomes of the pilot. First, the multimodal monitoring of travel patterns before and after. Secondly, the evaluation of the pilot on rail travel patterns, again, before and after. Finally, a value-for-money assessment of the pilot. This assessment will be undertaken by comparing the ex-ante forecasts, and associated monetised benefits and costs, with the actual outcomes in terms of demand. This is a key benefit of the change being a pilot rather than permanent.

The ScotRail peak fares pilot will run until 29 March 2024 and the evaluation findings (including the assessment of value for money) will inform further decisions on setting future fares.

Holyrood: There was significant backlash when the low emission zone (LEZ) came into force in Glasgow. That constant balancing act of dealing with the climate crisis while recognising the cost-of-living crisis is a difficult one, but do you think criticism that there was a lack of planning that meant people and businesses were caught unaware, is fair? 

FH: For those who don’t agree with low emission zones there was never going to be an ideal time to introduce them. To protect public health and improve air quality, this was a necessary step that we first outlined through the programme for government in 2017. Public information work to help people and businesses plan ahead was critical. A significant amount of that work was done to inform communities ahead of wider LEZ enforcement by both the Scottish Government and by Glasgow City Council.

In early 2019, 48 per cent of people in Scotland knew about LEZs. Through our communications work, before wider enforcement beginning in Glasgow, national awareness was at 89 per cent with awareness by those driving into Glasgow at 96 per cent. We know that people and businesses need this vital information to comply. That’s why we will continue to undertake national marketing, and work with local authorities to promote the necessary awareness of LEZs ahead of enforcement across Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. 

Glasgow City Council estimates that over 90 per cent of the vehicles passing through the city centre are already compliant. On help during the cost crisis, for those people and small businesses with non-compliant vehicles, the Scottish Government has provided over £10m through the LEZ Support Fund to help those who need it most. This has resulted in over 2,800 non-compliant vehicles being disposed of or retrofitted with cleaner technology – and at the same time enabled a shift away from cars and towards more sustainable transport options, which is great for cities and the people who live and work in them, and great for our environment. A further £5m has been made available this year through the Support Fund.

Holyrood: The Scottish Government’s ambition is to reduce car journeys by 20 per cent by 2030, but there are major concerns about that target being missed. Are we seeing progress and what are the obstacles that need to be overcome?

FH: Our draft route map sets out how we plan to reduce car kilometres by 20 per cent by 2030 – a truly world-leading commitment demonstrating our level of ambition in meeting Scotland’s statutory targets. Following a public consultation, we are working to prepare a final version of the map for publication and are developing a toolkit to aid local authorities and partners to deliver car reduction in their own areas. 

One of the biggest obstacles we face is that the most direct levers on the cost of buying or running a petrol or diesel car – fuel duty and vehicle excise duty – remain reserved, and so, for now at least, we must find other ways to encourage the behaviour change needed.

As outlined in our draft route map, the scale of the challenge means that we need to take forward a broad combination of interventions, including infrastructure, incentives and regulatory actions. However, we are firmly committed to a just transition and, as such, our approach will take into account the needs of those who may be less able to reduce car use, such as carers and those living with a disability, or in rural locations. 

We will work with all local authorities to support equitable measures which encourage active travel and accompany greater investment in public transport for a fairer and greener transport system.

Holyrood: The ferry network is an integral part of Scotland’s transport system, yet many of our vessels are ageing and in desperate need of replacing. Given the problems building the two ferries for the Clyde and Hebrides route, do you understand concerns expressed by islanders about the future? 

FH: Following on from my work with the Net Zero, Energy and Transport Committee, I made it a priority following my appointment to visit our island communities and hear from them directly. I recognise the impact that delays and disruptions have regrettably had on our island communities and understand the frustration with current ferry services. 

While it’s true that the vast majority of ferries do sail on time, this provides little reassurance to people and businesses, particularly given the scale of disruption that follows when cancellations do happen. I know everyone involved in delivering Scotland’s ferry services is working hard to minimise cancellations and disruption as far as possible.

That’s why our continued and significant investment in renewing the ferry fleet is so important. More vessels will bring better resilience and confidence to our network. Delivering six new major vessels to serve Scotland’s ferry network by 2026 is an absolute priority for this government and it’s encouraging to see good progress continues to be made on bringing them into service.

Holyrood: The first minister recently confirmed the A9 will be dualled. When will that happen and will the A96 also be dualled? 

FH: During the statement to parliament on the programme for government, the first minister confirmed the formal commencement of a new procurement for the dualling of the A9 between Tomatin and Moy.

We heard the criticism around our previous procurement approach, we took the time to get that right, and then worked to make our procurement process as efficient as possible, resulting in a much shorter procurement timescale than we would usually run for this type of project. 

The earliest possible contract award date will be made in summer 2024, and while I recognise that may be disappointing for some, we had to take the time to improve our approach – a move which was welcomed by the Civil Engineering Contractor’s Association. Work to determine the most suitable procurement options for the remaining sections of the A9 dualling is now well advanced, and we will update parliament on a renewed programme for the remaining section this autumn.

On the A96, again, the Scottish Government is absolutely committed to making improvements and the current plan is to fully dual the route. The significant interest in the transparent, evidence-based review’s initial consultation generated 11,000 options to improve the corridor and it is only right that these were fully appraised.  

Transport Scotland is pushing forward a robust appraisal of the 16 retained options alongside a climate compatibility assessment, with outcomes outlined in a final public consultation, before a final decision can be reached.

Holyrood: Petrol and diesel cars are set to be phased out, but is there enough capacity in the electric vehicle charging network to support the number of EVs that will be on Scotland’s roads, particularly in rural areas? 

FH: We can be proud of the early investment that the Scottish Government has made in the ChargePlace Scotland network. We have now provided over £65m to support development of a comprehensive charging network covering all of Scotland, including many rural locations.

Our recently published Vision for Scotland’s Public EV Network outlines our ambition to deliver 6,000 public charge points by 2026. It also notes a one-size-fits-all approach would be self-defeating, as we recognise there will be a higher dependency on car use in some areas, particularly in rural settings

Our Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Fund, which aims to leverage £60m of public and private investment, will work to support rural and island communities.

What I would add is that the decision by the UK Government to roll back on their climate commitment is unforgivable. We have always been clear that meeting Scotland’s climate targets is contingent on action by the UK Government, and coordinated action across the UK is urgently required in a range of policy areas including transport. We’re still working to understand the implications for Scotland as a result of recent decisions, but the clear response from businesses involved in car production and EV infrastructure is that consistency from government should be clear. The UK Government has failed industry and is failing the next generation on climate action.

Holyrood: Many parts of Scotland continue to be underserved by public transport. What plans are there to expand routes and timetables to improve the offering? 

FH: We’re committed to supporting ways to make sustainable travel choices more attractive, as we know that to reduce car use, public transport has to be available, affordable and accessible.
Through the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, we’ve given local transport authorities more power than ever before to respond to transport challenges in their own areas, whether that’s running their own bus services, improving the quality and efficiency of existing services through a Bus Services Improvement Partnership, or developing a franchising framework where the authority sets out the services to be provided and standards to be met within an area, contracting bus operators to run them. It’s so important that we empower local transport authorities to help us make Scotland’s transport network cleaner, smarter and more accessible than ever before.
We are also progressing the Fair Fares Review to ensure a sustainable and integrated approach to fares that supports the future long-term viability of the public transport system, further to our peak fares pilot. A real source of pride for me is that so many people can benefit from concessionary travel. We’re providing free bus travel to a larger percentage of the population – both younger and older people – than schemes elsewhere in the UK. As a result of increased patronage through those schemes, some operators have already increased service provision.

Holyrood: What is your favourite mode of transport when travelling to and from parliament, and out and about in the constituency? 

FH: I walk for 20 minutes each way every day as part of my commute, which also involves a train journey into parliament, which itself is usually around 20 minutes each way. Walking in the fresh air helps clear my mind.

Holyrood: What has been the best journey you have taken and why?

FH: My best journey was on the Paddle Steamer The Waverley with my family on the evening of my 21st birthday when we travelled from Ayr to Largs on a warm summer’s evening, with the sun setting over Arran, and an ice cream at Nardinis to round it off. Transport is about people and places, and these were the best.

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