9 August 2023
RAIL magazine (Issue 989 p.48-52)

This month, Scotland’s largest city will play host to thousands of sporting enthusiasts across the globe when Glasgow hosts the 2023 Cycling World Championships.

But with many flying in for the ‘champs’, bringing one’s own bike will be an expense too far. To get around, spectators will instead be relying on Glasgow’s extensive (if somewhat unwieldy) public transport network.

They will encounter a litany of brands – including the publicly owned ScotRail and multiple private bus operators. But at bus stops, on the Subway, and on certain tickets, they will catch a glimpse of an identity which was once, for Glaswegians, inseparable from the very concept of public transport – SPT.

The Strathclyde Partnership for Transport is the largest of Scotland’s seven “transport partnerships”, and its mission is to co-ordinate transport not just in Glasgow, but across much of the west of Scotland.

From the Lanarkshire coalfields to Loch Lomond and the Isle of Arran, the body is charged with planning and delivering transport in conjunction with local authorities, ScotRail, and private bus operators.

SPT was created in its current form in 2006, by the devolved Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive. But the brand was far from new, having previously stood for Strathclyde Passenger Transport and denoting the Passenger Transport Executive (PTE) created in 1973, as a result of Barbara Castle’s 1968 Transport Act.

As well as taking over the Subway and bus services from what was then known as Glasgow Corporation, the new Greater Glasgow (later Strathclyde) PTE was responsible for rail services in its area through entering agreements with British Rail.

At privatisation, SPT’s close involvement in planning regional rail services continued, with trains bedecked in a carmine and cream livery distinct from the new ScotRail brand.

Fifty years on from the creation of the PTE, the west of Scotland’s transport network is frequently the subject of criticism.

New Subway trains are now three years late. And having pioneered universal smart ticketing across rail, Subway and bus services for delegates to the COP26 climate summit back in 2020, SPT has yet to roll out the same technology to ordinary citizens.

Buses are expensive – £2.65 for a single, compared with £1.80 in Edinburgh and the £2 cap in England. And while Manchester is rolling out bus franchising, with Liverpool set to follow suit, the prospect of a single identity for Glasgow’s buses is still a distant one.

The current incarnation of SPT most often pleads powerlessness when it comes to addressing these issues.

That’s partly because as a ‘partnership’ it has fewer teeth than the PTE it replaced – in 2006, rail franchising and concessionary fares responsibilities were taken over by the centralised Transport Scotland.

In Bus Regulation: The Musical, recently staged at the initiative of Ellie Harrison (probably Scotland’s highest-profile transport campaigner), the new SPT was described as a “mere husk of its former self”. Now, Harrison believes it’s “grow or die” for the historic brand.

Back in 1973, however, the future looked bright. Greater Glasgow was the last of the original PTEs to launch, following the West Midlands, Greater Manchester, Merseyside and Tyneside.

According to Alan Millar, whose comprehensive history of the body’s first decade was published in 1985: “It inherited long-standing plans to develop the rail network of its area, and high hopes were entertained at the time for a public transport system which, before World War 2, was acknowledged to be one of the best the world could offer.”

The new body attracted a degree of suspicion at its launch on June 1 1973. Reporting a “quiet takeover”, the Glasgow Herald’s focus was not on the new body itself, but that “Glasgow Corporation transport department yesterday ended its separate existence after nearly 90 years”. It was a change which “passed without any special mark of official notice”.

The Herald did, however, note that the PTE could “revolutionise bus and rail services in the greater Glasgow area”. William Murray, the outgoing general manager of the Corporation’s transport department who became the PTE’s director of operations, was quoted as saying: “It is natural to look back nostalgically to the long history of the transport department, but the important thing is to look ahead to the challenging problems that face us in the fulfilment of our role to provide a better and co-ordinated public transport system.”

The PTE reported to a Passenger Transport Authority (PTA) comprising 26 councillors from across the region it covered, along with four members appointed by the Secretary of State for Scotland.

For the duration of its existence from 1975 to 1996, the seismic Strathclyde Regional Council subsumed the PTA’s responsibilities, with the PTE becoming known as SPT from 1983.

In its first decade, the PTE’s highest profile came from the redevelopment of the dilapidated Subway, which was reopened by the Queen to much fanfare in 1979.

But behind the scenes, even more significant developments were afoot. For as well as the Subway, buses and long-standing plans, the PTE inherited a power struggle with the state-owned Scottish Bus Group (SBG), a mammoth organisation created through the merger of regional bus companies in 1961.

The SBG was reluctant to cede control to the new PTE, so many bus routes remained outside of regional control.

“In the absence of a formal agreement, work with the SBG has been to some extent been limited,” the PTE’s 1976-77 annual report drily noted.

Harrison, the co-founder of the Get Glasgow Moving campaign, says: “Strathclyde Buses never had control over Strathclyde’s buses – the area [in which the PTE delivered bus operations] didn’t go much further than the Corporation’s. They should have taken control of all the buses in the region on creation of the PTE, like what they did in Greater Manchester.”

By the time the SPT brand had been rolled out, the PTE had managed to establish an agreement for the same tickets to be accepted on SBG-run routes.

But changes on a bigger political stage were clipping its wings – in the form of a Conservative government at Westminster, led by Margaret Thatcher.

The 1980 Transport Act began the process of ending the monopoly exercised by the PTE and the SBG over the west of Scotland.

SPT’s 1981-82 report described the Act as “the biggest change in 50 years”. Under new powers granted by the legislation, the Transport Secretary at Westminster made an order which “meant that any operator who wished to run a service in Glasgow could apply for a licence to do so”. The new framework also “implicitly encouraged the rationalisation of the Scottish Bus Group and the PTE bus network”.

In 1985, full deregulation was extended to local buses – prompting the break-up of the SBG, the hiving off of Strathclyde Buses into a new company which could not receive subsidy, and increased competition from other private operators.

A management buy-out took Strathclyde Buses away from any form of municipal control in 1993, before the company was sold to FirstGroup (now Glasgow’s largest bus operator) in 1996.

The significance of this story is not limited to buses. Its ripple effects have arguably hindered SPT’s ability to roll out integrated ticketing and make public transport (including rail) a more attractive option in the present day.

Apart from the SPT ‘Zone Card’, which is effectively a season ticket, private bus companies’ tickets are not compatible with each other, nor with rail or the Subway. The slowness in achieving an Oyster-style system is most often blamed on the inability – or indeed reluctance – of powerful private bus operators to reach a revenue-sharing agreement.

The transition to a new body after the millennium, under the supervision of the new Transport Scotland agency, was controversial – not least because SPT was seen by many as successful and efficiently run.

“They will abolish an effective agency, seize its powers, and then re-create it. What a waste of time and resources,” future Conservative Scotland Secretary David Mundell said when the plans were announced in 2004, in comments reported by the Herald.

Lib Dem Transport Minister Nicol Stephen, however, suggested that SPT was in fact the model for the whole new system: “We wish to preserve the strengths of SPT and to build on the significant skills and experience of its workforce. We are determined to see a strong regional transport partnership in the west of Scotland to which the SPT’s powers would transfer.”

The result, however, was a disempowered SPT (now standing for Strathclyde Partnership for Transport) under new organisational leadership. Two senior figures, operations director Douglas Ferguson and corporate affairs chief Iain Wylie, took early retirement shortly after the new body took charge in 2006, with a combined £440,000 pay-off.

In a report (leaked to the Herald) on the organisation’s internal culture, new chief executive Ron Culley spoke of the need to “break down the existing silo mentality”. He spoke too of “frustration and a sense of resignation” among senior figures.

Although the SNP had taken power at Holyrood, SPT was still under Labour control – and SNP councillor John Mason (since elected as an MSP) questioned the spend on the management review and pay-offs.

It would not be the last of the new SPT’s management woes. In 2010 Culley, along with board chair Alistair Watson and vice-chair Davie McLachlan, resigned after an Accounts Commission report found a culture of “serious deficiencies” in bosses’ expense claims.

A subsequent auditor’s report suggested that a three-day trip to Manchester by SPT management had been timed to coincide with Glasgow Rangers FC’s appearance at the 2008 Uefa Cup final, which had taken place in Manchester that year.

Culley’s successor as chief executive, Gordon McLellan, then abruptly retired in 2021 after the Sunday Mail published photographs of him allegedly driving a car near his holiday home on the Isle of Lewis, while a car with the same numberplate was parked outside the SPT headquarters in Glasgow. McLellan denied cloning the numberplate.

After this succession of scandals, it was unsurprising that SPT should seek a safe pair of hands as its new head.

Valerie Davidson, a qualified accountant, worked for the old SPT before becoming assistant chief executive of the new organisation in 2006.

“I was head of finance, then director of finance for SPTE [the PTE], and I was also the treasurer for SPTA [the Transport Authority], so I had great conversations with myself,” she says in an interview with RAIL in her top floor office at SPT’s Glasgow headquarters. “That is not a joke.”

Davidson was speaking to RAIL directly after meeting with Get Glasgow Moving, which has been lobbying her to exercise powers in the Scottish Parliament’s Transport Act.

The campaign group argues that SPT is now fully able to regulate and franchise bus services, rather than work in partnership with private companies, and can also set up its own municipally owned operator to compete with them.

Davidson has also just submitted the final version of the Regional Transport Strategy for the west of Scotland, which she says “talks about accessible transport, affordable transport, far greener transport for sustainability, and integrated transport”.

The strategy, which focuses on transport’s contribution to tackling the climate emergency, along with making the network accessible and “more affordable”, now needs ministerial approval.

Impressively, Davidson managed to meet twice with Transport Minister Kevin Stewart, despite the fact that he resigned after just nine weeks in office. Now the rubber stamp must come from his successor, Fiona Hyslop.

“We will be, and are, in the process of delivering an action plan, because that’s what we’re required to do,” Davidson adds.

“As soon as we’re in a position to move forward our board will be the first to hear about that, about what we think that could look like.”

SPT has also had a recent change in its political leadership – with respected chair Dr Martin Bartos, a Scottish Greens councillor representing the west end of Glasgow, replaced by the SNP’s Stephen Dornan.

Prior to stepping down last year, Bartos produced Transport for Strathclyde, a paper outlining an ambitious vision for the region. It included a commitment to “fair fares for all”, a proposed “public transport guarantee” (sometimes known as the “Swiss model”), and a single “Strathclyde Buses” brand.

But none of these are included in the regional transport strategy that SPT has now produced. Integrated ticketing also still seems like a distant prospect.

“We’re leading with our operator partners and engaging on how we develop a smart Zone Card which is region-wide, that’s quite advanced in its development,” says Davidson, adding that it should be in place “before the end of the year”.

She is less committal about when a pay-as-you-go smartcard might be delivered: “The technology’s not the issue. The difficulty is the revenue allocation issue and the commercial agreements. Clearly, as we move to a smartcard Zone Card, those difficult discussions over revenue allocation are being addressed, but it’s a commercial decision and we have no powers to force somebody to participate in that commercial discussion.”

Is there nothing that can be done to incentivise the bus operators to act?

“If you think I have a magic money pot, that’s not the position,” Davidson replies.

“SPT’s funded by the 12 councils. We’re up against in terms of funding, all other services.

“In terms of incentivising through some other fashion… we’re incentivising as best we can, by actually leading the project and bringing the parties to the project in a way that allows it to be managed. But, at the moment, it’s a voluntary partnership in terms of getting the people round the table.”

Get Glasgow Moving’s Ellie Harrison is sceptical of this approach. “She feels that she has to persuade the bus companies to go into some sort of agreement,” she says of Davidson. “She doesn’t have to do that. She can use the franchising powers and then compel the bus companies to do whatever she likes.

“It all goes back to the decision not just to rename but to reconstitute Strathclyde Passenger Transport as Strathclyde Partnership for Transport. That word ‘partnership’ – Valerie lives and breathes that word. She is the embodiment of partnership working. And the issue is that partnership working is why transport policy has failed for the last 20 years.”

Harrison points to a 2021 report on Britain’s bus network co-authored by former UN Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston, who concluded: “It is time partnerships are recognised as a tried-and-failed approach that should be retired in favour of actual regulation of public transport.”

Martha Wardrop, the convener of Glasgow City Council’s policy committee responsible for transport, is more circumspect. “Everyone looks at Edinburgh and wants what they’ve got,” she says, referring to the recently expanded tram network and Lothian Buses, which has remained in public ownership despite deregulation.

“We’ve gone down this bus partnership approach. I think the pressure is now on the bus companies to meet what customers want.

“This bus partnership model is giving them a chance to do that. But most people would say that’s not likely because it’s profit-driven and they’ll only run services on profitable routes, and also the bus services are unaffordable for lots of people.

“That’s where we’re pushing for the free public transport for under-22s to come in. And then we’re looking at a free public transport pilot, that’s getting developed at the moment.” Edinburgh figures large in any discussion of Glasgow’s transport challenges.

“It’s challenging, because in our DNA here in Edinburgh is the publicly-run bus service,” says Edinburgh City Council transport convener Scott Arthur.

“We’re really proud of that. And now we have the tram, which has been running for nine years and has now been extended, and so we’re really proud of that too.

“Because of the legacy of the original tram scheme, all of this was only £207 million,” he says of the recent extension to Leith and Newhaven (RAIL 985).

“It’s not the biggest infrastructure project ever, but it was hugely bold for us to say at the time we’re going to take this forward. So, while I’m not an expert on the challenges that Glasgow faces, I would say be bold as well.”

That will be the task SPT faces in delivering the Clyde Metro. Says Davidson: “Clearly, as we look ahead to Clyde Metro, and SPT is obviously part of the partners involved in the Clyde Metro. In due course, we’re working hard with our partners to make the case for investment as part of that.”

But so far, the nearest equivalent to Edinburgh’s investment in fixed infrastructure is the transformation of the Subway – although new trains are overdue.

“Work on the Subway modernisation is progressing – and it’s progressing well,” says Davidson.

“There’s a lot of work that’s been done, an awful lot of work – and actually, to be fair to the team who are delivering that – in time slots which are really challenging. A four- or five-hour time slot at night is a really challenging thing to do. So, hopefully the city and the region will really start to see the benefits of that work quite soon.”

The new fleet “certainly gives the impression of a 21st century Subway”, she says. But with Glasgow having the world’s oldest underground network which has never expanded, what does that really mean?

“The Subway carries, if you’re using pre-COVID as a baseline, 20% of the equivalent of heavy rail passengers in the west of Scotland, per year. So, yes, it is quaint and bijou and all that kind of stuff. However, it’s an essential part of the network. Without it, it would be a challenge.”

Some argue that without the Subway, SPT might well struggle to justify its continued existence. But for as long as the ‘Clockwork Orange’ survives, it will need an operator, which might as well be SPT – although as Harrison notes, Clyde Metro might well be taken forward by a successor body even smaller in scope, as its proposed network does not extend beyond the Glasgow City Region, which is smaller than SPT’s area.

“The history of SPT is basically a history of disempowerment, losing power after power after power,” says Harrison.

“Its budget is shrinking, shrinking, shrinking – shedding staff. It was a huge operation.

“It’s grow or die for SPT. If they do not seize these opportunities and actually demonstrate that they have an ambition to become a properly functioning transport authority, in a Transport for Greater Manchester model, they are going to get replaced. The writing is on the wall.”

Conrad Landin