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Transport / Mixed response to long-awaited fair fares review

Photo Will Rodger.

THE SCOTTISH Government’s long-awaited fair fares review has received a mixed welcome – with criticism that it is silent on some “key issues” for islanders.

Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart said the publication, released last week, offers “precious little improvement” to the public transport system.

She was disappointed it does not touch on topics such as shared cabins and the related concessionary voucher issue on the NorthLink ferries, or the scrapping of seasonal fares for islanders.

However SNP Highlands and Islands MSP Emma Roddick noted how it references the government’s work on potentially introducing free inter-island ferry transport for under-22s.

“The introduction of free inter-island ferries for under-22s would only improve the lives of young folk in our islands further, giving them greater freedom to take up opportunities across the islands,” she said.

Councillor Moraig Lyall, who chairs Shetland Islands Council’s environment and transport committee, ZetTrans and the local external transport forum, said she was left a “little underwhelmed” after reading the report – adding that there was not much in the way of specific details.

The Scottish Government said the review sets out its aim to ensure the public transport system is “more accessible, available, and affordable, with the costs of transport more fairly shared across government, business, and society”.

Some suggested solutions include the development of proposals to introduce a national integrated fare structure, developing a proposal for a bus flat fares pilot scheme and establishing a national forum on the future of public transport.

But when it comes to a Shetland perspective it appears there is little that has not already been placed in the public domain.

It was revealed in February that the government was considering introducing free foot fares for under 22s on inter-island ferries, to bring it in line with the national free bus transport scheme.

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Government to consider providing free foot fares to under 22s on inter-island ferries

It also mentions extending the existing national ferry concessionary scheme to under 22 island residents, giving some free transport on the NorthLink service, but this was also announced previously.

The publication also notes proposals set out previously in the government’s islands connectivity plan, including revisiting a freight fares review and considering whether a different approach to releasing vehicle space for booking will better facilitate essential island travel.

There is a deck space reservation pilot being carried out at the moment.

On a wider level the review also sets out commitments to develop the feasibility of expanding the national concessionary schemes, including a pilot project to extend free travel on rail services for companions accompanying eligible blind people.

It also maintains existing eligibility to the national concessionary travel schemes for those groups who currently benefit, which amount to more than 2.3 million people across Scotland.

Lib Dem MSP Beatrice Wishart.

Responding to the publication, Wishart said: “The Scottish Government promised this review would deliver solutions. Instead, four transport secretaries and almost three years later, it offers precious little improvement to our public transport system.

“The review is silent on key issues, such as shared cabins and the related concessionary vouchers issue on the Northern Isles route, the scrapping of seasonal fares for island residents on Serco NorthLink ferries, or new options for rail season tickets.

“I have repeatedly called on ministers to extend the under-22 bus pass to inter-island ferries, and it’s disappointing that, even now, they have only just decided to ‘develop the proposal’.

“Many of those who could have benefited have missed out as a result of this needless delay.

“Scottish Liberal Democrats want to see fares cut, new two/three day a week season tickets on trains, reliable ferries and communities put in charge of when and where buses go. It’s clear this SNP/Green government has a very long road to travel before it gets there.”

Meanwhile Lyall said: “Given the time that has been spent on this fair fares review I have to say I am little underwhelmed.

“All the usual buzzwords are there – affordability, accessibility, sustainability and integration – but there’s not a lot of specific details.”

Regarding the under-22 ferry fares, the councillor said she believed the question is not “if” but how and when.

“Once the mechanism is established this will be implemented in reasonably short term,” Lyall added.

However, she said that beyond that “everything is in very general terms”.

“The need to encourage more use of public transport for environmental reasons is already clear but this document doesn’t detail the levers for achieving that,” Lyall continued.

“Making public transport affordable and accessible to all seems still a desire more than a strategy with resource behind it.”

The government’s transport secretary Fiona Hyslop said: “The recommendations and actions set out will help us to ensure we have an available, affordable and accessible public transport system which enables people to make positive and proactive travel choices which result in using their cars less.

“Scotland’s public transport system is a key enabler for growth and opportunity, helping people and communities to connect to jobs, education, retail, public services, leisure, social and family networks.

“We will maintain current eligibility for the free Young Persons and Older and Disabled Persons bus pass. We know that families can save £3,000 for each child who makes full use of free bus travel, and the opportunities this is opening up to young people are truly remarkable.

“A sustainable and viable public transport system is also vital in achieving our ambitions on net zero as well as our target to reduce car kilometres by 20 per cent by 2030.”

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