Returning Scotland’s train services to normal is “vital”, Nicola Sturgeon said as she urged ScotRail and trade unions to operate “in good faith” to resolve a pay dispute.
ScotRail, which was nationalised last month, announced on Wednesday that it will cut 700 services from Monday in response to a driver shortage caused by a disagreement with the union Aslef which has seen some drivers decline to work overtime or on rest days.
The temporary timetable could be in place for weeks, ScotRail’s service delivery director David Simpson has said.
Facing questions on the matter at Holyrood, the First Minister stressed the importance of ensuring services return to normal as quickly as possible.
ScotRail, the First Minister said, believes a temporary timetable is “preferable to unplanned cancellations”.
She added: “However – and let me stress this point – it is vital to get the timetable back to normal as quickly as possible and I expect ScotRail to review the temporary arrangements regularly, indeed it is due to be formally reviewed on June 3.”
The First Minister went on to say it is important for an agreement to be reached as quickly as possible, while ScotRail’s training programme continues to bring new drivers into the workforce to reduce the need for rest day working.
Ms Sturgeon urged Aslef and ScotRail to continue negotiations to reach a settlement.
“I would say to the unions, I understand their job to represent their members and to get a fair pay deal for members, but let’s see both parties get round the table and negotiate that in good faith – I think that’s what the travelling public want to see as well,” she said.
Responding to the First Minister, Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “You call this regrettable, say that to the people in Dunbar who will have zero trains operated by ScotRail stopping at their station.
“Say that to the business leaders who are telling you these cuts are going to put at risk thousands of jobs and small businesses.
“Let’s remember, Nicola Sturgeon and her Government are in charge of Scotland’s railways.
“Just seven weeks into nationalisation, it’s already proving a disaster.”
Anas Sarwar said the Scottish Government has “chased the headline” but “won’t do the work” when it comes to ScotRail.
The Scottish Labour leader challenged the First Minister on her reaction to service cuts of 40 trains per day back in 2018, which she said were “not good enough”.
He said that since 2020, ScotRail services have seen a decrease of almost 1,000 a day.
Mr Sarwar said: “For once, Nicola Sturgeon has got nobody else to blame.
“Why are 40 cuts a day when someone else is in charge not good enough, but cutting 1,000 services a day, in the words of the rail minister, ‘a stable and reliable service’?”
He added: “Yet again, the SNP chased the headline, but won’t do the work. Maybe they should employ fewer spin doctors and more train drivers.”
Aslef Scottish organiser Kevin Lindsay said in a statement after First Minister’s Questions on Thursday: “ScotRail and the Scottish Government have handled this situation appallingly.
“Nicola Sturgeon has to recognise that the pay dispute can only be settled with a resumption of immediate talks.
“We need a fair pay deal and there must also be a clear and proactive plan to recruit more drivers.
“Aslef stands ready to resume talks with the company anytime, anywhere, any place.
“We have said this from day one and today we repeat that call. Relying on drivers to work rest days is no way to run a 21st-century railway.
“This situation will not be resolved if ScotRail fails to engage in meaningful talks.”
The Night Time Industries Association said the timetable changes are a “cruel blow” for hospitality businesses.
A spokesman said: “These devastating cuts to rail services will leave commuters rushing to catch early trains home and prevent ordinary people across Scotland from travelling in to our towns and cities during the evenings.
“Such cuts to services, even temporarily, is yet another cruel blow for Scotland’s hard-pressed night-time economy and cultural sector which are yet to recover from the pandemic.
“With these beleaguered industries facing an extremely challenging start to 2022, this news presents considerable concerns both around economic and employment impacts, and of course over the safety of customers and staff travelling home safely at night.”