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Scotland faces dramatic cuts to rail, air, bus and ferry services as the coronavirus virus spreads, Transport Secretary warns

Michael Matheson
Michael Matheson

Rail, bus, air and ferry timetables will be dramatically reduced over the coming weeks as the coronavirus spreads, Transport Secretary Michael Matheson has warned.

ScotRail is making “urgent” plans to cut services, bus services face disruption and ferries and flights to islands will be scaled down.

With the public advised to avoid non-essential travel, Mr Matheson said transport operators would experience “cash flow issues” that would affect their viability and warned that airlines would fail.

Appearing before MSPs at Holyrood’s rural economy committee, Mr Matheson indicated smaller inter-island ferry routes could be threatened as a result of crew shortages as the virus takes hold.

Mr Matheson said the priority was to keep lifeline ferry and air routes to islands open, although journey frequency will fall.

Loganair, which services many islands, has already announced that it will reduce over half of its flying programme for April and May.

Mr Matheson said the airline had suffered a “very significant drop” in bookings. But the plan was to make sure air links are maintained, even if the frequency of flights falls.

The Transport Secretary said routes of island flights could also be changed in the future in order make sure islanders are able to access the mainland.

The aviation sector more broadly was under “extreme pressure” with demand falling by 70% to 80%.

“During this difficult period it is likely that some airlines around the world will fail, which will have a direct impact on our air connectivity in the future,” Mr Matheson said.

ScotRail had advised the Transport Secretary that there had been a 30% reduction in demand since Monday alone.

“Consequently a reduced level of service from ScotRail is being planned urgently and details on this will be provided in the very near future,” Mr Matheson said.

Here are some of the main points made by Mr Matheson as he updated MSPs on what the coronavirus will mean for Scotland’s transport system:

RAIL

A reduced ScotRail service is being planned “urgently” with details to be provided in the “very near future”.

Network Rail is working to ensure they have enough resources in place for signalling centres and electrical control rooms and are training additional workers to staff them.

The Caledonian Sleeper service is under review by the operators, who are expecting a drop in demand and falling staff numbers. A reduced service may be introduced, which sees the service only go as far as Glasgow and Edinburgh rather than all the way to Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William.

Enhanced cleaning is being done on areas which passengers have a lot of contact like stair rails, ticket consoles and door buttons.

AIR

Despite the likely reduction in island flight services, Mr Matheson said he aimed to ensure that “no island loses out” so that islands with an air link continue to receive flights.

This may involve routes changing with aircraft going to from one island to the next to pick up passengers before returning to the mainland.

Loganair aircraft that are spare as a result of the reduction in services may be pressed into duty if patients require lifts to the mainland.

FERRIES

Ferry services are being maintained at the moment, but that could change in the next fortnight. As the virus takes hold, it is likely that ferries will operate at a “reduced capacity”. Calmac and Serco NorhLink to the Northern Isles are taking guidance from Transport Scotland’s Resilience team. But Mr Matheson said the drop-off in passenger numbers will increase the financial pressure on the operators.

The Transport Secretary said there would be a need to “revisit timetabling” as staff are lost to the coronavirus.

Mr Matheson warned operators would not be able to “maintain the existing frequency of service”, but all efforts would be made to keep access to essential goods and medical supplies.

Smaller inter-island services are under the most threat from the illness , because they do not have the stand-in crews that vessels on longer routes have.

“There is the risk that some inter island ferries could be impacted because there is not an alternative crew, who could provide that service,” Mr Matheson said.

BUSES

Concessionary travel journeys have dropped by around 20% since the start of the month. Operators are considering time-table changes due to the falling demand.

Mr Matheson admitted there would be “disruption” as staff self-isolate. But timetabling changes will take into account the fact that buses are lifeline services for remote communities.

Using bus routes to deliver medicine to people in remote areas is also being looked at.

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