Transport Links (Rural Areas)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 16th June 2022.

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Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

6. To ask the Scottish Government how it is strengthening transport links to rural areas. (S6O-01244)

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

The Scottish Government’s ambitions for future transport infrastructure investment in rural areas are highlighted in the 45 recommendations in the second strategic transport projects review, or STPR2. The recommendations include continued investment in ferry replacements and port upgrades to improve their resilience and reliability. We also intend to consider two potential fixed links in the Western Isles, as well as a link between Mull and the mainland. STPR2 provides the necessary evidence base that is required to help secure the future funding of those projects, including those that have potential to transform the way we travel in rural areas.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

As a result of ScotRail’s emergency timetable, it is impossible for people from Caithness to get the train to attend hospital appointments in Inverness. The reimbursement mileage is woeful, at 15p a mile, and does not adequately cover their costs. How will the minister ensure that no patient is missing out on healthcare as a result of the lack of public transport in the area?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

As the member will know, ScotRail’s emergency timetable has arisen as a result of drivers refusing to work on their rest days. I am very grateful that the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen has since recommended that the pay deal is accepted; it will now go to members for a referendum.

I have asked ScotRail to look at how we might be able to reinstate the normal timetable as quickly as possible, noting, of course, that ScotRail has already reintroduced a number of services.

On the specific point that Miss Grant raised about reimbursement, I would be happy to address that with ScotRail and, having noted some of her concerns in that area, to write to her with more detail.

Photo of Evelyn Tweed Evelyn Tweed Scottish National Party

Bus passengers across rural Stirling are experiencing last-minute cancellations, especially on services X10, 38 and 52. First Bus has advised that there is a shortage of bus drivers. Can the Scottish Government advise on what more can be done to address those shortages and other issues that are affecting the industry?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

There is currently a shortage of heavy goods vehicle drivers for buses and lorries as a result of the pandemic creating a backlog in testing and training. That has been exacerbated by Brexit, which has prevented people from the European Union from coming to Scotland to work freely.

With regard to our representations, we have repeatedly sought a formal role in determining which occupations are on the shortage occupation list, but the UK has denied us that. Bus drivers are not included in the SOL. I understand that the UK Government will be reviewing the list later in the year, and we have asked for full involvement in that process.

The current position is clearly causing issues for local and national bus services across the country. We have provided up to £210 million of funding to support bus services during the pandemic and an additional £40 million to support recovery for this year. In addition, I have asked Transport Scotland for urgent advice on why it appears that so many services are now being cancelled as a result of shortages and on how the service changes are impacting on communities more broadly.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

First, I take the opportunity to congratulate the minister on her recent marriage. [

Applause

.]

The minister mentioned funding. The network support grant plus has been keeping bus operators afloat, in particular in rural areas, but it is due to end next month. Industry experts have said that that could lead to a cut of 20 per cent on some routes, as well as rising fares and depot closures.

Bus operators are calling for the fund to be extended at its current rate by three months, as that would allow passenger levels to recover. Will the minister agree to that?

Photo of Jenny Gilruth Jenny Gilruth Scottish National Party

I am aware of the issues that the member has raised, and I thank him for his good wishes.

Some of the funding that is associated with the support grants is related to the pandemic, and it was always due to come to an end at some point. However, I have asked officials in Transport Scotland to see what more we might be able to do to support rural bus services.