OUR latest opinion column comes from West Scotland Labour MSP Katy Clark.

* * * * * * * * * *

THIS month, passengers across North Ayrshire and Scotland face huge disruption on our railways.

The numbers of trains have been slashed by a third across Scotland just weeks after the new summer timetable was announced due to “staff shortages”.

North Ayrshire has been hit particularly hard, with the number of daily journeys from Monday to Friday on the Glasgow route to Ardrossan South Beach dropping by a huge 49 per cent. For the Irvine route, the cut is 42 per cent.

It comes just months after previous operator Abellio administered a significant reduction in services compared to the pre-pandemic timetable.

At the start of 2020, there were 2,400 daily services; the summer timetable took that down to 2,150; and this latest cut leaves just 1,456 left.

READ MORE: Stagecoach set to axe key North Ayrshire bus routes

Some have tried to shift blame to train drivers on strike, but they are clear that they are overstretched, working heavy overtime and being asked to work on rest days, which undermines passenger safety. During COP26, we heard commitments to rail, the greenest form of transport, but ScotRail and the Scottish Government has failed to recruit and train enough drivers over many years.

The drivers’ union ASLEF estimate 30 to 50 drivers need to be recruited a year just to maintain present standards. As of last week, not a single vacancy was even listed.

The Scottish Government talked about building a ScotRail focused on passengers’ needs after taking the railways into public ownership at the start of May.

Nationalisation was an opportunity to improve rail services after the shambolic mistakes made by failed private operator Abellio and move on from years of overcrowded, late trains and deteriorating station facilities.

However amidst a cost of living crisis, the Scottish Government have hiked passenger fares by 3.8 per cent, the highest rise in nearly a decade.

ScotRail also plan to cut ticket office opening hours across the country – including at Irvine, Ardrossan and Saltcoats – which will leave travellers feeling less informed and less safe.

READ MORE: 'Cutting lifeline bus services will leave North Ayrshire commuters high and dry'

It is not too late for the Scottish Government to change tack. Fewer people are using the railways, but this is hardly surprising given the pandemic and the change in commuter habits, with more people working from home.

The answer is not to scale down services even further particularly when one of our big aims is to encourage more travellers to use trains rather than cars due to climate goals.

We need to increase investment, ensuring workers and businesses can rely on regular services, in turn boosting the economy and supporting the recovery.

The Scottish Government must remember what public ownership entails: direct accountability to everyone who relies on public transport.

Ministers must get around the table with trade unions to ensure fair pay and conditions for staff, come forward with a staff recruitment strategy, and provide commitments to reverse all cuts.

From there, we can start to build a rail service which really is based on people’s needs.