Jamie Hepburn (Central Scotland) (SNP): I thank those members who have supported my motion, enabling it to be debated tonight. I would also like to thank the various transport authorities and rail companies that have met me or written to me before the debate. I also thank TRANSform Scotland for its interest tonight and for preparing a briefing for members.
I put on record my thanks to the members who have stayed behind to contribute to the debate. In particular, I look forward to any contribution from my colleague Chris Harvie. I always feel as if I should be taking study notes whenever he speaks.
My motion has two purposes. They are clear from the text, but I am happy to be up front and clear about them. This is an opportunity to welcome and discuss the improvements to the central Scotland rail network that are being funded by the Government, but it is also an opportunity to open for discussion the idea of a national rail card for Scotland.
The rail network has played a significant role in Scotland's history and it has an even more important role to play in our country's future. Rail travel contributes positively to a range of economic, social and environmental ambitions that the Government and the Parliament have for Scotland. The Government's stated purpose of sustainable economic growth will absolutely depend on our having an efficient and environmentally friendly transport infrastructure for moving people and goods around the country. Above all, a modal shift from private car to public transport is a necessity if targets in the economic strategy and in our efforts to tackle climate change are to be met. Accessible public transport is also important for improving social interaction, which links to the Government's targets on inequality. Indeed, the motion notes that 32 per cent of Scottish households do not have access to a car. For those people, travel of any kind means dependence on public transport.
Those challenges and targets help to explain why the Government's plans for improving rail services across central Scotland are vital. I was recently informed by a Scottish National Party councillor from Cumbernauld that the SNP was campaigning for the electrification of the Glasgow to Edinburgh main line in the 1930s. It appears that the SNP's persistence on the matter will finally pay off.
I welcome the Government's ambition to achieve a 35-minute journey time between Edinburgh and Glasgow. The electrification of the route will benefit the population in both cities and in the towns of central Scotland, many of which are in the area that I represent. The eventual electrification of lines to Cumbernauld will also be extremely welcome. Users of those services need and deserve a speedy, reliable service that links to other key routes. That our rail network is largely unelectrified—which is remarkable in the 21st century—works against any ambition for a speedy, reliable service.
I am sure that members agree that Scotland must not be left behind with regard to developments in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. Another motion that I recently lodged noted the launch of France's latest, all-new super-high-speed train, at a time when the UK has only just completed a small stretch of high speed 1 from St Pancras. Scotland lags even further behind the network serving much of the rest of the UK.
That is why I warmly welcome the Scottish Government's commitments to rail improvements in central Scotland. The Government recognises that that investment is a priority for the people of the region and knows the impact that it will have.
Once the infrastructure is in place, the challenge will be to ensure that it is well used. Many of the improvements will benefit and encourage the commuter market, which will help to attain the economic targets that I mentioned. I am keen, however, to find ways to ensure that Scotland's people get the most from investments in central Scotland's rail network. One major disincentive to rail travel is the fares that are charged—both the cost and the structure of the prices. There are savers, super-savers, apex, super-apex, cheap day returns, weekend upgrades—the list of options and alternatives seems to go on and on and presents a cluttered and confusing landscape. At present, some groups benefit from the simplifying effect of a rail card discount. There is a young person's rail card, which I remember from my recent past, a senior rail card, which other members might be able to comment on, and a rail card for young family groups. However, people who do not fall into those groups are left out and might be put off making a train journey by the cost and by the complicated ticket restrictions.
Only three respondents to the previous Scottish Executive's 2006 consultation on the rail strategy believed that the fare structure should not be changed. Research on behalf of the Strategic Rail Authority into a national rail card proposal found that, for seven in 10 potential rail trips—that is, those journeys that a person considers making by rail—the main barrier to choosing rail as the mode of transport was price. That is why the motion suggests that we should consider making a discount rail card more widely available in Scotland. If we make train travel more affordable, more people will be encouraged to take advantage of the rail improvements that the Government is bringing about. In turn, that would help to meet the various goals that a modern, efficient rail network can contribute to. It would be a social leveller and an environmentally friendly way of improving rail travel across the country.
Research that was carried out in 2003 and 2004 for Railfuture and the Strategic Rail Authority showed that a number of different combinations of up-front price and percentage discounts could be profitable. It is important to state that that proposal could be profitable for rail companies. Railfuture found that a UK-wide scheme could attract 2.7 million users of such a card and achieve an 11 per cent increase in passenger miles, with industry profits of £50 million.
Another possible model, featuring a card that would be priced at £30 and offer a 50 per cent discount, forecast a 25 per cent increase in passenger miles. We need look no further than the south-east of England to see a positive example of a rail card in action. The network rail card that is in use there turns a profit for the rail industry while encouraging greater use of the network that connects with central London.
In the course of preparing for the debate, I met various transport operators and rail companies. They indicated a certain amount of interest in the scheme and there was certainly no outright opposition. They all agree that we need to simplify fare structures and encourage more use of the rail network. I have talked about a rail card scheme in the context of possible profitability for the rail operators but, to be clear, I do not believe that that is in itself an argument for introducing such a scheme. The social and environmental purposes of a railway are the most important factors for us to consider in encouraging greater use of the network. Indeed, the treatment of the railway as a profit-oriented business rather than a national public service has in many ways led to years of underinvestment and decline. That decline is only now beginning to be addressed by the kind of improvements to which the title of the motion refers.
I have run out of time, so I conclude by saying that we should aspire to excellence for our rail network. The improvements that the Government is making play a huge part in realising that aspiration to excellence and a national rail card has a huge role to play in that regard.