UNIONS have fired a broadside at ScotRail over plans to cut services in a new timetable after the services move to state ownership.

Four unions are angry that the train operator plans to cut 300 services a day from its pre-pandemic levels to save £40m a year.

The changes from next May mean some 2,100 weekday trains running compared to 2,400 before the Covid crisis.

It is slightly more than the current 2,004 daily services, cut because of lower demand during the pandemic.

Aslef, RMT, TSSA and Unite trade unions have hit out at the cuts saying: “It is incredible in the year that the world comes to Scotland to debate the very future of our planet ScotRail is proposing cuts to the rail services in a transparent attempt to use the pandemic as cover for cuts.

“These plans would not only cull jobs, they would hit hardest on the most vulnerable people within society including elderly and disabled people. All the while diverting many passengers back onto the roads and increasing pollution, congestion and greenhouse gases.”

The transport secretary Michael Matheson announced earlier this year that ScotRail will come under direct state control from March 2022 having stripped Dutch state-owned railway operator Abellio of responsibility for running Scotland's rail services.

He said it will be run through an arms-length company controlled by the Scottish Government declaring that the current system of franchising "is no longer fit for purpose".

HeraldScotland:

Mr Matheson said the move will come through "operator of last resort arrangements" after he decided it was not the right time to seek a franchise procurement competition to run Scotland's railways after Dutch state owned railway company Abellio ends its control.

At the end of 2019, ministers announced it had stripped Abellio of the franchise three years early in the wake of continuing outcry over service failings and rising costs to the taxpayer.

It came after a 2018 winter timetable with the introduction of high-speed trains and new class 385 electric trains ushered in months of cancellations and disruption to services with much of it put down to staff shortages partly due to training to deal with the new trains and timetable.

The train operator is due to unveil the consultation of what it called  a new “value for money” timetable for May 2022 on Friday.

Analysis in the document, called Fit for the Future explained the cuts.

 "The significant cost of Scotland’s Railway combined with the fiscal challenge placed on public spending by the Covid-19 pandemic, means we must look at becoming more efficient so that this vital transport network can remain financially sustainable into the future," it said.

"The train service provided by ScotRail must be designed in such a way as to be as attractive to customers as possible whilst using staff and trains efficiently and also allowing Network Rail sufficient access to maintain and improve the network.

"A vital first step is not to just revert to the historical train service plans as passenger demand recovers from the pandemic as this will increase the cost to the taxpayer by £30 to £40 million per year."

It claimed that before coronavirus there were “significantly” more seats provided on trains than were required.

"Under five and a half million passenger journey miles were completed on a typical weekday, which was just 23 per cent of the available number of seats, it said.

“In other words, seats were empty for 77 per cent of the distance that was travelled."

The report claimed “over-capacity” varied across the network and cited the North Electric Line and the Argyle Line as being among the poorest performers.

“We are proposing a new timetable operating around 2,100 services per weekday as the foundation to encourage a return to public transport following the pandemic," it said.

The consultation is open from 20 August to 1 October 2021, to seek opinions on the proposed timetables.

HeraldScotland: A ScotRail sign

In announcing the consultation, ScotRail said it had been able to continue to operate during the pandemic thanks to significant financial support of more than £400m in the form of Emergency Measures Agreements from the Scottish Government.

"Passenger journeys have risen to around 50 per cent of their pre-Covid levels, however, evidence shows that, in future, customers will be using the railway in different ways by travelling at different times and for different purposes," it said.

"The train operator is proposing a new, better performing, timetable operating around 2,100 services per weekday as the foundation to encourage a return to public transport following the pandemic. Most customers will find the number of calls at their station and the destinations served are similar to today.

"ScotRail analysis shows prior to the pandemic, on a number of routes across the country, significantly more seats were being provided than were required for the number of passengers travelling.

"For example, under five and a half million passenger journey miles were completed on a typical weekday, which was just 23 per cent of the available number of seats. In other words, seats were empty for 77 per cent of the distance that was travelled.

"Returning to a pre-pandemic timetable would result in trains operating 26 million more vehicle miles each year for little customer benefit. As well as increased emissions, that would increase ScotRail costs to the taxpayer by £30million to £40million each year.

"The proposed new timetable will also focus on improved punctuality and reliability of services, building on the record punctuality delivered during the pandemic. Research from Transport Focus has highlighted this is a key priority for customers."

It said new services are being added on some routes, such as Dundee to Glasgow which will benefit from an hourly service calling at all stations between Dundee and Stirling.

It said that on other routes there may be slightly longer journey times, saying "it is more efficient to operate one long train calling at all stations, than have two shorter ones which split the calls between them".

Alex Hynes, Scotland’s railway managing director, said: “Scotland’s Railway is committed to delivering a service that is safe, reliable, green, and clean. Our job is to keep people moving and connected to business, leisure, and education while meeting the expectations of our customers.

“The pandemic has changed how people travel across all of Scotland so our services will reflect these varied travel patterns and deliver timetables that are reliable, have enough capacity to meet pre-COVID levels of demand, and are sustainable.

“We are consulting on the timetable changes being proposed and we would welcome the views of our customers.”

The transport secretary previously admitted it had considered keeping Abellio on board after March, 2022, but decided it was not in the country's best interests.

Mr Matheson has not said how long the 'operator of last resort" arrangements would be in place for, saying that it was something that will be considered further as the "shape and pace" of rail reform becomes clearer. 

David Simpson, ScotRail operations director, said: “The significant cost of running the railway following the impact of the coronavirus pandemic means it’s essential that the railway meets the changing needs of customers, as well as providing taxpayers with best value for money. Our timetable proposals do that.

“That might mean offering a different service on different days of the week or different times of year as passenger demand varies across the week or through the year. But by doing so, we can ensure Scotland’s Railway remains sustainable into the future.

“During the pandemic, we’ve provided outstanding, and sustained, high levels of punctuality and reliability for those travelling. Our proposals build on that as we know that a safe and reliable service is a top priority for customers.”

Graeme Dey MSP, minister for Transport, said: “This consultation exercise offers a real opportunity for customers and businesses to help shape a reliable and responsive timetable change from May 2022.

“I would encourage anyone with an interest to share their views."

Abellio's franchise loss came after ScotRail was forced to submit a plan by February, 2019, to address falling performance levels which, if unsuccessful, would have resulted in a breach of contract and led to the Dutch transport firm losing the franchise early.

Mr Matheson had made it clear that it was his "strongly held view" was that a public sector controlled integrated passenger railway was the future for Scotland enabling what he called a "more cohesive, fleet of foot strategic decision making structure between rail infrastructure and services with full accountability to the Scottish Government".