THE role of public transport in the recovery from the pandemic was always going to be challenging one. After months of being told to keep our distance from each other and not to gather in groups, the prospect of getting on a train or bus will be daunting one, especially for those who remain vulnerable to the virus even when they are vaccinated.

But if we are to avoid long polluting tail backs of traffic, such as have been seen heading onto the Queensferry Crossing over the summer, we must allow public transport to flourish, so that passengers can have confidence that it is affordable, safe and reliable.

Let’s not forget that public transport has the biggest role in driving down climate emissions from transport, and so confidence in our services is vital in securing our future too.

That’s why what is happening at ScotRail couldn’t have come at a worse time. Months of industrial action, including strikes, by staff over pay and conditions have coincided with a redesign of services that for many passengers feel like cuts.

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The rail unions are right when they say that Dutch firm Abellio’s tenure has been chaotic, so it’s vital the company does not spend the next six months running down services and ignoring workers and passengers.

Abellio’s contract ends in March next year, after which ScotRail will come into public ownership. We need to see this for the opportunity it is to create a people’s railway.

To do this, we need to see much better engagement with the communities that rely on train services. Communities need services that are reliable, quick and affordable. Meeting their needs is what a people’s railway should be about, as well as being a vital step in encouraging people away from private car use and meeting our climate emission targets.

The report which led to the proposed changes, the Docherty report, claimed that the recommendations were due to changed passenger behaviour and the need for economic recovery from Covid but it is still too early to say how rail use will recover post-pandemic, given that many workplaces have, understandably, yet to invite workers fully back to the office.

ScotRail is currently consulting on its national proposed timetable and the consultation closes for responses on October 1. Next week I am hosting an online town hall meeting to hear from passengers across Mid Scotland and Fife alongside representatives from the rail industry, trade unions and passenger groups, and it will be events like this that can help us design services that work for people not profit. ScotRail have confirmed to me that it will attend the town hall event next week to explain the timetable changes to people and hear directly from passengers across my region about how the changes will affect them. People have a voice and they are having their say on the issue.

How ScotRail deals with the responses to the consultation will be a big test. We expect full transparency about the concerns that are raised and the action that it will take to address them before it passes on final proposals to the minister for a decision.

I acknowledge that some change will be necessary. No-one wants to see empty trains running and the rail network must be used efficiently. There might be timetable changes that meet passenger demand better than the current timetable does.

But rail must be at the heart of the Government’s plan for a 20% reduction in traffic. The transfer of ScotRail into public ownership next year must mark a relaunch of rail in Scotland and a genuine people’s railway. We must have a service that is run in the public interest, with a direct role for passengers and workers in service planning and delivery, so that we reach out to communities who are currently not served by the rail network and to passengers who—let us be honest—could be served a lot better.

However, the changes that we have seen so far are concerning. For example, the Kirkcaldy to Perth service will take up to 30 minutes longer, with no direct train between the two places and less frequent journeys. Journeys in Fife will require a change at Inverkeithing, which will increase journey times. Passengers in Strathearn might benefit from more regular services from Gleneagles, but for Perth residents the current problems with journey times will be compounded. If the message is that it will become harder to take the train between Perth and Scotland’s other cities, that will be incredibly damaging to the Government’s target of securing a 20% reduction in vehicle mileage.

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The railway is our future. I was thrilled when the Scottish Government this week acknowledged that aviation demand must come down – a major shift in policy thanks to the Scottish Greens. The new aviation strategy is an opportunity to protect lifeline internal flights to places like the Islands while shifting frequent business travellers away from high carbon aviation onto low-carbon rail.

Put simply, a people’s railway must be co-designed by the people who need it and work on it, and it must be accessible and affordable enough to encourage others to choose low-carbon rail instead of flying or the private car. That’s how we instil confidence in our public transport and build a green recovery from the pandemic.