Alastair Dalton: Will new Transport Secretary just stick to his limo?

Michael Matheson will be the first transport secretary in the Scottish Cabinet. Picture: John Devlin
Michael Matheson will be the first transport secretary in the Scottish Cabinet. Picture: John Devlin
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Nicola Sturgeon’s reshuffle is good and bad for Scottish transport.

Good because of its elevated Cabinet status that finally ends the awkward division of responsibility between two ministers over the last four years, but bad because of the loss of continuity.

Without taking anything away from the new man in the job, the First Minister also missed a trick in not appointing a woman to the role.

Labour’s Wendy Alexander was the last, 16 years ago. It would have helped readdress the gender balance in what is still a very male-dominated sector.

It was clear from the appointment of the last transport minister in 2016 that it was likely to be just a stepping stone for rising star Humza Yousaf.

However, as with his predecessor Derek Mackay, he effectively only had half the brief.

The minister before them, Keith Brown, retained the “good stuff” – major projects like the Queensferry Crossing and the A9 upgrade – when he was promoted to the Cabinet as economy secretary in 2014.

READ MORE: Alastair Dalton: Will ScotRail’s plan to cut delays actually work?

Mr Mackay – and Mr Yousaf after him – found themselves left with the more problematic issues, such as the battle for CalMac, and getting ScotRail’s trains to run on time.

But now, transport is fully promoted to Cabinet level for the first time, and is also in the hands of a single minister. That must be good both for co-ordination and for ensuring transport’s crucial role is recognised at the highest level. In this new integrated role as the first Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson moves from justice to an equally demanding, varied and complex portfolio.

There are big issues on the go. How exactly will the £3 billion dualling of the A9 be funded and completed in seven years? When will ScotRail turn round itssub-par punctuality and will its new train fleets end overcrowding, when they finally start running?

Then there’s the haemorrhaging passengers from Scotland’s buses – still by far the biggest mode of public transport – and the future of increasingly costly free bus travel for older people. Meanwhile, how on Earth will the Scottish Government get anywhere near its “vision” of 10 per cent of journeys being made by bike by 2020?

READ MORE: Alastair Dalton: Experts reveal Scotland’s transport heaven – and hell

Mr Matheson may have switched brief, but some thorny issues will stay with him, such as the Scottish Government’s stalled plan to merge British Transport Police with Police Scotland, which he’ll now see from a rail perspective.

Mr Yousaf sought to avert potential opposition by readily agreeing to meet critics, but I’m told by some senior figures that this led to much being promised to many. We will see how Mr Matheson takes up those conversations.

A key area remains getting Scots to use their cars less, and switch to public transport, cycling and walking more. Mr Yousaf went out on a limb here in some respects, publicly criticising SNP councils who abandoned segregated cycle lanes, which are seen as crucial to encouraging more riders, and vetoing the closure of a rail station in West Lothian with three passengers a week.

It doesn’t bode particularly well that Mr Matheson’s first ministerial visit on Wednesday was to the Traffic Scotland control centre in South Queensferry, from where he posted a video message that only referred to the road network.

According to official records, Mr Matheson appears to have stuck to the ministerial limo in his last job and has made no official trips by public transport in recent months. We’ll see whether that changes.