Scott Macnab: Transport minister is a poisoned chalice role

Humza Yousaf has found the transport minister brief is as perilous as the fate of his predecessors suggests.
Humza Yousaf has found the transport minister brief is as perilous as the fate of his predecessors suggests.
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Humza Yousaf’s brief has been among the toughest posts in Scotland since devolution says Scott Macnab

Almost six years ago, Scotland found itself battered by the worst blizzards in a generation. The snow and black ice led to widespread chaos for travellers with the country’s busiest motorway networks, particularly in the central belt, badly hit. Thousands of cars were abandoned by motorists who found themselves marooned and the finger of blame for many was lodged firmly in the chest of Scotland’s then transport minister Stewart Stevenson.

The Banff and Buchan MSP, a close ally of then First Minister Alex Salmond, initially tried to ride it out, claiming it was “freak weather” and pleading he’d had no warning. Cue a furious backlash from BBC Scotland weather presenters who ensured their earlier forecasts were repeated on the main news bulletins at the time, pointing out just how bad things would be.

It made Stevenson’s position untenable and he quit after a few days, admitting he could have done more to keep the public informed of the situation.

It was an episode which shows how the transport brief has become something of a poisoned chalice for ambitious politicians trying to work their way up the ministerial leader in post-devolution Scotland. And it’s something the current incumbent, Humza Yousaf, is now discovering during the outcry over the situation on Scotland’s railways.

Stevenson’s successor, the ex-marine Keith Brown, promptly announced he would be staying up through the night at one of Scotland’s transport hub headquarters charged with keeping the country moving, such was his determination to stay on top of things.

Brown soon ran into problems when it emerged that Chinese steel was being used to build the new Forth bridge. It didn’t seem to matter to the sabre-rattling opposition that Scotland no longer had any furnaces producing raw steel. The rolling plants left after the demise of Ravenscraig weren’t producing steel suitable for the Queensferry Crossing.

But the opposition scented blood with the SNP, which prides itself on fighting for Scotland, outsourcing materials for this iconic construction overseas.

Brown was able to ride out the storm by producing a near weekly audit trail of contract work on the bridge, setting out the involvement of Scots firms.

When Derek MacKay took over at transport, the former Renfrewshire council leader seemed a safe pair of hands. It wasn’t long before he faced his own woes when the current Forth Road Bridge was dramatically shut down after a cracked truss was discovered.

The minister’s handling of the row was thrust into the spotlight during a “car crash” radio interview where he admitted that the damaged area had been earmarked for replacement before budget cuts meant the work was shelved.

This appeared to contradict a statement he’d given to MSPs at Holyrood the previous day. A Holyrood inquiry into the row eventually found that the damage could not have been predicted.

Even before the SNP, when the Liberal Democrats held the transport brief in a coalition administration with Labour, Nicol Stephen was forced to weather a storm when he overturned planning officials’ advice to approve the M74 extension.

Although it had been welcomed by motorists on Glasgow’s southside, the five-mile stretch of road, costing about £400 million, was the most expensive piece of road mile-for-mile in Europe.

When Stephen became Deputy First Minister, it was Tavish Scott who took on the post, but found himself at the centre of a storm of criticism when he announced his backing for road pricing.

Scotland is an increasingly mobile society where commuting between cities for work is widespread, while in rural parts of the country, the ability to travel about in cars or public transport is a lifeline rather than a choice.

So transport is a government portfolio that really matters and Mr Yousaf is finding that out the hard way, as problems on Scotland’s rail networks have reached a crescendo in the past week.

A train breakdown in the capital between Haymarket and Waverley last Thursday caused widespread disruption. Some feel that the reaction has been over the top. It was only one train after all.

But thousands of commuters were delayed or stranded with services all across the country affected.

It does seem astrange that better contingencies were not in place, particularly if this was – as has been claimed – the “worst possible place” for such a breakdown to occur.

The fact that many MSPs and political hacks were travelling to Parliament that day also helped ensure maximum exposure for the problems as Labour leader Kezia Dugdale tore into Nicola Sturgeon on the issue during First Minister Questions at Holyrood, extracting a “mea culpa” apology from the SNP leader on the issue.

So can Mr Yousaf survive?

Well, Scotland’s trains are at the centre of a political feeding frenzy at the moment so he’s facing a tough few weeks. Mr Yousaf will again face a barrage of statistics from Labour today on the latest performance (PPM) statistics – taken automatically from the country’s signalling network – which indicate that services in many parts of the country are still failing to meet the 90.3 per cent target for trains arriving within five minutes of their scheduled time.

Abellio suggests the only way to judge them is over the year and that improvement is edging up to 89.8 per cent in the last period.

Perhaps the bigger bear trap facing Mr Yousaf will be in fleshing out his plans to bring the trains back into public ownership, amid claims that the idea was “drawn up on the back of a fag packet” in order to divert attention from the current crisis. It has already prompted a spat between Abellio and the minister, with operators claiming that issues like overcrowding and pricing are directly influenced by ministers in the contract.

And, apart from anything else, for a generation of Scots who can remember the widespread delays and cancellations under British Rail, will a nationalised railway system really be such a panacea?