The announcement on Thursday follows transport secretary Michael Matheson telling MSPs last week the £15 million project “will be used to run a pilot on particular routes for six months”. The trial, which was announced by Deputy First Minister John Swinney in the Scottish Budget last month, is due to start sometime in the year from April in an effort to boost post-pandemic rail travel.
But ten hours after Mr Matheson’s comments to the Scottish Parliament’s net zero, energy and transport (NZET) committee on Tuesday last week, Transport Scotland told The Scotsman the suspension of peak fares would cover all routes “in the course of a series of controlled trials over a six-month period”.
However, in answer to a question at Holyrood from Mid Scotland and Fife Labour MSP Claire Baker on Thursday, transport minister Jenny Gilruth said the pilot "will apply to all routes for the whole six months".
Ms Baker said later: “Passengers across Scotland were told the trial scrapping peak fares would apply across the network, but in the space of a week, the Scottish Government’s plans have become more confused and questions still remain.
“The Cabinet secretary said a whole network trial wasn’t possible within the £15m investment provided, yet the minister [Jenny Gilruth] has stated the pilot will be in place across all Scotland routes. The Scottish Government needs to be clear about how it is financing this scheme and who will benefit.”
Mr Matheson had told the NZET committee: “I emphasise that the change to peak fares is a pilot project. The £15m will be used to run a pilot on particular routes for six months to test out whether removing peak fares will have an impact on people’s travelling behaviour. It will not remove peak fares across the network.
"It would cost more than that to remove peak fares across the whole network. Before arriving at a policy decision about whether we work to remove peak fares across the network, we are looking at the cost of that and whether there is budget allocation.”
Late the same day, a Transport Scotland statement suggested what Mr Matheson had said had changed. A spokesperson said: “The removal of peak fares would apply to all routes in the course of a series of controlled trials over a six-month period. Details of the timing of these controlled trials are currently being developed.”
However, nine days later, following Ms Baker’s question, the Scottish Government agency issued an “updated” statement. Its spokesperson said: “The peak fares pilot will apply to all routes for the whole six months, commencing in the next financial year.
“Work on the precise methodology and design is ongoing, with officials working closely with Scottish Rail Holdings [the Scottish Government firm overseeing state-run ScotRail] to derive maximum benefit for this scheme.”
Ministers have already postponed ScotRail’s annual fare rise from the start of the year until at least March. Suspending peak fares would reduce the price of tickets by nearly half, with a peak hour (“anytime”) return ticket between Edinburgh and Glasgow costing £27.60 compared to a £14.20 off-peak return.