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Scottish Parliament Speech: Concessionary Travel Scheme (December 2009)

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I have to declare what has become the obligatory declaration of interest for people in my phase of life, which is that I am the recipient of a concessionary travel pass. I am also the president of the Scottish Association for Public Transport and a member of the Waverley Route Trust, which has to an extent benefited from my concessionary pass - I will go into that in a moment.

Let us get the facts in perspective. We spend £180 million in Scotland on concessionary fares every year. Our total household spend on transport comes to about £12 billion a year, of which more than 85 per cent is spent on motoring. We have perhaps another 20 years of motoring ahead of us before peak oil comes in - although, if we fumble things badly at the Copenhagen climate change meeting, we might find something a lot worse than peak oil.

The concessionary pass has been a boon and blessing to this elderly man because it enables me to save about £12 a day coming to Holyrood by free travel from Melrose to Edinburgh, although the circulation just got back into my feet at about 10 o'clock, after my suffering in a freezing X95 bus from Galashiels. To some extent, I have kept the system in being by payments to the Scottish public transport bodies, particularly in order to see the last of the X95 bus and have it replaced as soon as possible by the Waverley railway, a cause for which I think Charlie Gordon has only qualified sympathy. In the Borders, we are also digesting the impact of a drastic cut in off-peak services.

I see some problematic areas in the concession system. The first is technical, in that there is a problem with the registration and claiming of fares, to which Karen Gillon alluded. Fares can be registered in many different ways, varying from just a blanket concession ticket being issued by FirstBus, to the full registration of fares by Stagecoach, Munro or Perryman. That means that there is no transparency when it comes to assessing income from fares and disbursements from the scheme. There seems to be a problem with certain bus services of various forms of dubious accounting being carried through. I talked about that to a very senior police officer, who said that his force was concerned about developments in that area.

What we have in Scotland, in fact, is a paradox in the collection of fares. We have a very high-technology ticket checking system, which one sees particularly in our railway stations, where one is apt to be sort of grabbed by one of the machines. I once asked why so many people in dayglo outfits were at the checkouts and was told "They're there to keep an eye on the machines," which I find slightly chilling.

On the continent, something like 80 per cent of passengers now travel by season ticket. They are not even inspected; that is, they do not even have to show the season tickets when they enter a bus but are inspected by crash-squads of inspectors, who are quite robust people. Someone without a ticket can end up 50 euros poorer by the end of that process. There is a natural inclination to use such methods to regulate the system.

That brings me to a social equality point that I feel quite acutely. If an old-age pensioner from Galashiels were making the trip to Edinburgh and back once a day for five days a week without our system of concessions, the cost would consume half their weekly pension - it would take more than £50 from their weekly £97. I therefore have a certain doubt about my own role in the scheme as a relatively well-off professional who benefits from it. I will come back to that point at the end.

I believe that Scottish bus services could be managed much more competently. We have had five different changes of timetables in the Borders in the past year, which often only get through to the consumer of the services a fortnight later. In fact, we see old timetables in some areas that might be anything up to one and a half years old.

See this speech in context on They Work For You.

I totally agree with the member about that. It is bad enough to be in the wilds of Waterloo Place, but we can see that something is going on at St Andrew Square bus station, which they are not telling us about, behind what used to be very good public facilities and stances that have simply disappeared. I used to think that the old St Andrew Square bus station was possibly the most squalid public transport utility in the whole of western Europe, but then we got the splendid new one. However, we now have something of a reversion to the older one.

One of the great advantages of the concession system to all passengers is the speed of going through the system - getting on the bus and showing a card. Why is that not also available to people such as schoolchildren and apprentices? When travelling by bus, we can often find that we are held up for anything up to four minutes on a quarter of an hour journey by people simply having to find change for their fare to put into the machine on the bus. That procedure does not fit well in a modern transportation system. A stationary bus is just an automatic cash loser. With a bit of ingenuity and smart management, we could wipe the car school run off the map and drastically speed up our transport.

Charges should be retained in the transport system and used to improve facilities that are important to the elderly and disabled. There should certainly be completely free transport for people on the state pension and several levels above that. However, people of my age and earnings should be prepared to pay a flat rate of about a third or a half of what the cost of the full use of public transport would be averaged out at - so perhaps about £250 a year could be paid. That would enable much more efficient management of the services.

I was very impressed, when I was travelling in northern England, by the Northern Rail franchise, which has a community officer who deals with integrating the railway system with the structures of the community that it services.

 
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