Nicola Sturgeon has apologised to passengers of newly nationalised ScotRail after being accused of presiding over “the worst service in a generation”.

The First Minister said she would always apologise to anyone in Scotland let down by a public service, whether that was the railway or anything else.

However she also tried to blame the UK Government for “souring” industrial relations in general as she faced intense criticism over the pay dispute on Scotland’s railways.

Opposition parties said open-ended cuts to 700 ScotRail services a day next week would be “devastating” for passengers and businesses.

With the last train on many routes leaving before 8pm, there have been warnings of job losses in the bars and restaurants relying on customers in the evening.

The temporary timetable has been introduced to cope with a driver shortage caused by a pay dispute between the Aslef union and ScotRail.

Nationalised in April after previous franchise operator Abellio was deemed unreliable, ScotRail will reduce its weekday services from 2,150 to 1,456 from Monday.

Cuts to weekend services are also considered likely in the coming days.

ScotRail says the changes are preferable to the hundreds of unplanned cancellations that have affected the network since May 8, when Aslef drivers stopped working the overtime and rest days that have been critical to keeping a full service running.

The union has balloted its members for strike action after they rejected a 2.2 per cent pay rise.

ScotRail service delivery director David Simpson yesterday conceded the reduced timetable could be in place for “weeks”.

At FMQs, Ms Sturgeon said it was “vital to get the timetable back to normal as quickly as possible”, and a formal review of the arrangements was due on June 3.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross asked Ms Sturgeon to apologise “to the thousands of passengers who have faced disruption since the SNP took control of Scotland’s railways”.

She said: “I always express apologies to anybody who does not get the standard of service that they deserve, whether from our rail services or any other public services.”

She then drew attention to the wages Aslef’s drivers were already being paid and stressed any pay deal must be “affordable”.

She said: “It is important to seek to reach an agreement - a fair agreement - on pay as quickly as possible. Right now, train drivers earn around £50,000 a year, before overtime. “Notwithstanding that, this is a tough time for everyone. Everyone wants a fair pay award, but it is required that all pay awards be affordable.

“ScotRail continues to reduce the need for rest-day working through training new drivers. “The training programme was interrupted by Covid, but a significant number of new drivers are currently going through training.

“Therefore, I expect ScotRail to make sure that the temporary timetable is just that - temporary - and that the timetable gets back to normal as quickly as possible. I will, of course, ask the Minister for Transport to ensure that MSPs are kept fully up to date.”

Mr Ross quoted from Aslef Scotland organiser Kevin Lindsay, who on Monday said: “Quite frankly, it’s the worst negotiations I have been part of in 30 years as a union representative.” 

The Scottish Tory leader went on: “The cuts will affect not only passengers: they are also devastating for businesses in our city centres, which are still reeling from the impact of the Covid pandemic and now face another lost summer.

“In many places across Scotland, people will not be able to get a train after a night out.  

“To get the last train from Edinburgh to the Deputy First Minister’s constituency in Perth, people will not have to leave an hour or two hours earlier, but more than three hours earlier. “The last train from Edinburgh to Perth is now going to be at 8pm instead of 2318.

“On train services right across Scotland, last trains are being brought forward by hours. 

“That will have a profound impact on businesses, restaurants, bars and clubs. 

What compensation will the First Minister’s Government provide for the businesses that will clearly be affected by the cuts?”

Ms Sturgeon said the changes were “regrettable” but also temporary.
“The cancellations are disruptive and the situation is not acceptable and must get back to normal as quickly as possible. That is why all parties must get round the table and negotiate a fair and affordable pay deal, and it is why ScotRail must continue the work that it is undertaking to train more drivers… so that reliance on rest-day working is reduced and, eventually, eliminated. That is the focus of ScotRail and of the Government.

“I say to the unions that I understand that their job is to represent their members and get a fair pay deal for them, but both parties should get round the table and negotiate for that in good faith. That is what the travelling public wants.”

Mr Ross said passengers were paying more than ever for fares and “getting the worst service in a generation”.

He said: “Seven weeks in, nationalisation is already proving to be a disaster. 

“As happened with the ferries, as soon as the Government steps in to try to sort things out, the problems get even worse.

The SNP took over the running of our rail service on April fool’s day, but nat rail is no joke for Scotland’s passengers. Next week there will be 700 fewer services across the country every day. Was that really the First Minister’s grand vision for the railway in Scotland under SNP control?”

Ms Sturgeon said public ownership was the “right arrangement” and would allow the government to make “real improvements in our railway” over the long term.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar said that in February 2020, ScotRail ran 2,400 services a day. In February this year it was cut to 2,150, and next week it would be down to 1,456 a day. 

He said: “Already, due to SNP incompetence, 1,000 services a day are being cut, there are proposals to shut booking offices, rail fares are up, there is a refusal to rule out compulsory redundancies and industrial relations are at an all-time low. 

“Why do the people of Scotland continually have to pay the price of SNP failure?”

Ms Sturgeon admitted there were “challenges” in renationalising ScotRail.

“We will continue to work with ScotRail to overcome those immediate challenges and build a better railway for the future. That is what being in government is all about; on previous performance, Anas Sarwar is still some considerable way from that.”

Tory MSP Graham Simpson said it was “completely crazy” for a railway to be reliant on people working on their days off, earning jeers from SNP MSPs when he called it “Nat Rail”. 

Ms Sturgeon said transport minister Jenny Gilruth was in regular talks with the unions, and said Mr Simpson would do better to engage with the substance instead of mouthing slogans.

SNP MSP Fiona Hyslop asked if Ms Sturgeon was worried that a UK Government “political and ideological” dispute with rail unions south of the border was “souring industrial relations here in Scotland and affecting the new beginning of public ownership of Scotland’s railway”.

Ms Sturgeon said that if the UK dispute was not resolved it would have an effect on services in Scotland by affecting rail infrastructure, “so some advice from the Conservatives to their own party might not go amiss”.

Ms Sturgeon’s official spokesman later said she retained confidence in Ms Gilruth.

The Night Time Industries Association Scotland said  “Such cuts to services, even temporarily, are 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.  

“The Government must urgently resolve this dispute or they will be putting at risk both Scotland's economic recovery and the future of thousands of small businesses and jobs." 

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton later said Ms Sturgeon should travel on ScotRail trains and hear what ordinary passengers felt about the cuts.

He said: “said: “The promise to passengers of a stronger, greener rail network is in tatters just 47 days after the SNP/Green Government took it over.

“For all their talk about the climate emergency and the importance of public transport, they have just made it much harder to leave the car at home. 

“Nicola Sturgeon jetted off to America to spend days talking about independence and to tastelessly claim the war in Ukraine strengthens the case for separation.

“I think people would rather she spent days travelling with passengers across Scotland hearing how these SNP/Green rail cuts will impact on their families, work and travel plans.

“The First Minister can’t turn up for the photo opportunities but be nowhere to be seen when passengers are packed on to trains like sardines, or worse still not have any train at all.”