By Bill Heaney
Across the country, thousands of people are being left out of pocket and are struggling with this week’s rail chaos. There are countless examples, said Anas Sarwar at First Minister’s Questions in the Holyrood parliament today, and he instanced one from Helensburgh.
He told MSPs: “I will give the Deputy First Minister [John Swinney standing in for Covid victim Nicola Sturgeon] one of them.
He said: “Leanne lives in Dumbarton and works at a service station in Helensburgh. She takes the train to and from work. There is now no service after 8 pm and she finishes her shift at 10.30 pm. She is unable to drive and no public transport is available. How does the Deputy First Minister expect Leanne and countless others to get home?
Mr Swinney, who is also Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery, said: “I sympathise entirely with the position that Leanne finds herself in. That is why the discussions between the rail trade unions and ScotRail that will take place this afternoon are so important in resolving the issue.
“We must operate a safe railway and can do that only with fully and properly trained drivers. The network currently relies on rest day working by ScotRail’s train drivers, which is a practice that we are trying to eliminate.
“For properly understandable reasons, driver training was interrupted by Covid. More drivers are available now than have been in the past and we are trying to make progress on boosting driver numbers to resolve that issue.
“We have to resolve the dispute, and that is what the discussions are about. I encourage ScotRail and the trade unions to reach a conclusion to that process so that individuals such as Leanne can have the rail service that they should have access to.”
Deputy First Minister John Swinney and Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar.
However, Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour leader, accused the Deputy First Minister of not answering the question.
He told MSPs: “Unlike the Deputy First Minister, Leanne does not have a ministerial car to get home. [Interruption.] Members can hum and haw all they like, but this is real lived experience for their constituents, too, and they should care about their constituents. In the middle of a cost of living crisis, Leanne has to spend £20 on a taxi.
“That means that she has to work for two hours just to pay to get home. That is the reality for thousands of people across the country.
“Let us look at the facts. At the start of 2020, there were 2,400 rail services a day. In February, the Scottish Government made a permanent cut of 250 services a day. The latest chaos sees that number increased to almost 1,000 services a day being cut.
“The message from ScotRail and the Scottish Government is simply that people must make their own arrangements. Normally, when there is a significant disruption in rail services, a replacement bus service is provided. Will the Deputy First Minister tell us how many of the 1,000 services a day that have been cut have a replacement bus service?
Mr Swinney said he wanted to stick to questions about the capacity of Scotland’s rail services, which were recently nationalised.
He said: “If we look back at the situation in 2015, we see that there were 1,086 drivers on the ScotRail network. In December last year, it was 1,168, so there has been growth in the number of drivers. ScotRail would have trained a further 130 drivers had the process not be paused during the pandemic for what were, as I think we all accept, understandable reasons. There is now a pool of almost 900 pending driver applications, which gives us a supply of candidates coming into driver training that will allow us to expand the availability of driving personnel. Indeed, the ScotRail board gave authority for the recruitment of a further 135 drivers to move forward to the next stage.”
Leanne’s story was left standing at the parliamentary station while he ploughed on: “I put those points on the record to address the capacity of the rail services and show the investment that has been made to ensure that we have adequate numbers of drivers in the future. We are in a period of difficulty just now because drivers are exercising their voluntary right not to undertake rest-day working. We are trying to resolve those issues by the negotiation that is taking place and, through ScotRail, we have put in place an amended timetable that gives more certainty about the availability of services rather than last-minute cancellations. The feedback that we got from Transport Focus showed that that was the most important issue to address for the travelling public so that they had certainty about the transport that was available.”
Anas Sarwar got back on: “The Deputy First Minister spoke but he did not answer the question. I WhatsApped the ScotRail business account this morning to ask about how many replacement bus services ScotRail had. The answer was: ‘Hi there, no, there isn’t.’
“There are no replacement services across the country. In the middle of a cost of living and climate crisis, the Scottish National Party-Green Government is leaving people stranded with no public transport and asking them to use gas-guzzling vehicles instead.
“In practice, that failure means tens of thousands of people struggling to get to and from work, more people being out of pocket and made poorer, millions being lost for local businesses and the industries that suffered much during Covid taking another hit.
“While the Deputy First Minister and his colleagues have 28 chauffeur-driven cars that cost more than £1 million to get them to and from their work, the SNP-Green Government is cutting 1,000 rail services a day, offering no replacement bus services and forcing people to work hours just to pay for a taxi home.
“Should he and every other minister not hand back the keys to the ministerial chauffeur-driven cars until they get that sorted and get Scotland moving again?”
John Swinney replied: “This Government is providing practical help to people with the cost of living. For example, the Scottish Government has doubled the Scottish child payment to £20 per week. It will go up to £25 per week. None of that support is available in any other part of the United Kingdom, including in Labour-run Wales.
“We have assisted individuals with direct support through the carers allowance and other measures. While we are doing all of that to support members of the public in the cost of living crisis that they face, what is the Labour Party doing? It is getting into bed with the Tory party in council administrations around the country.”