A WAVE of state-controlled ScotRail service cuts brought about by a train drivers dispute could last to 2024 because new recruits are not being trained up quickly enough.
Ministers confirmed that only 55 of a gang of 130 new train drivers aimed at settling a staff shortages to cover work-to-rules are expected to have completed training by the end of this year.
And the First Minister has refused to commit to a firm end to the temporary service cuts on nationalised ScotRail.
Scottish Conservatives have suggested that the disruption could continue till 2024.
Train operator ScotRail confirmed it will slash services by nearly a third from next week due to a driver shortage exacerbated by two pay disputes involving the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) and Aslef unions after the rejection of a 2.2% pay rise.
ScotRail says the temporary but indefinite move to axe 700 services, which comes into play from Monday, has come as a result of the drivers pay dispute which has meant some refusing to take up the option of working rest days and Sundays.
The service is reliant on drivers doing overtime and work those days to keep trains running.
The driver shortages that have been exacerbated by the dispute lodged by Aslef have resulted in over 1000 train cancellations in the last 12 days. Nearly 150 more are scheduled to be cancelled on Friday.
The swingeing rail cuts in Scotland have been criticised as the worst seen in a generation.
Ministers confirmed that of 130 drivers that are being trained up to try and stop the need for rest day working, 38 drivers will be trained by the end of the summer, rising to 55 by the end of the year and to 100 "after that".
It was suggested by the Scottish Conservatives' shadow transport minister that it could take till at least 2024 before ScotRail is off the emergency timetable.
While she indicated she did not accept that, she confirmed that of 130 drivers that are being trained up to try and stop the need for rest day working, 38 drivers will be trained by the end of the summer, rising to 55 by the end of the year and to 100 "after that".
Union sources suggest it takes around 18 months for drivers to complete training.
And Ms Sturgeon said the next review over whether the measures will stay in place is not expected till June 3 and would not put a date on when all services would be restored.
She also declined to say whether the Scottish Government would provide compensation to businesses impacted by the reduced timetable, such as pubs, clubs and restaurants which complained that the cuts would hit Scots ability to have a night out - with the final train home being brought forward by hours.
The pay dispute surrounds train drivers, who having completed all training and a probation period are being paid some £52,000 per year - a rise of £3,640 (7.5%) in the past three years. Three years ago the pre-nationalised service was paying £48,360 to qualified drivers.
Three years ago ScotRail was paying £27,483 during the first year of intensive training. As a newly qualified driver the salary was £38,194, after six months £40,792 and after nine months £43,810.
The average salary of a nurse with four years or more in experience in Scotland is estimated to be around £30,000.
ScotRail said the temporary timetable was there "to provide greater certainty and reliability for customers.
Nicola Sturgeon told MSPs: "I absolutely accept that these temporary cancellations which are being made necessary by a pay dispute are disruptive. They are disruptive to individuals and they are disruptive to businesses. That's why it is so important that I stress today that ScotRail works hard to ensure that the temporary timetable is just that.
"It's not acceptable, it must get back to normal as quickly as possible. That is why we must see all parties get round the table and negotiate a fair and an affordable pay deal but also that ScotRail must continue the work that it is already undertaking to train more drivers so that the reliance on rest day working is reduced and eventually eliminated.
"There is a training programme underway to train new drivers to reduce the reliance on rest day working, it was interrupted because of Covid. But it is back underway and there will be significant numbers of drivers coming through that training programme."
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said: “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.
“These cuts will also be devastating for businesses still reeling from the impact of the Covid pandemic. They are facing another lost summer.
“Last month, the First Minister proclaimed that nationalising ScotRail was a ‘new beginning’ that would deliver ‘a railway for the nation’.
“But after just seven weeks, nationalisation is already proving a disaster. As with the ferries, as soon as this government steps into sort things out, the problems get even worse.”
The ScotRail industrial action could start on July 11 at the earliest, with the Edinburgh festivals starting in the first week of August."
The Scottish Government decided last year to take ScotRail under direct state control stripping Dutch state transport firm 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 Scottish Government is now in charge of the rail operator, which was running around 2,400 train services each day through an arms-length company ScotRail Trains Ltd.
Speaking as the rail services was brought back into public hands last month, the First Minister said it was a “historic moment” and a “significant milestone".
She admitted the Scottish Government has to prove to the public that nationalising ScotRail is a good idea, She said change will not come “overnight” but that more direct ownership by ministers will make addressing issues easier.