The move, which is expected to cost £15 million, will be an experiment as part of the Scottish Government’s Fair Fares review, the stand-in finance secretary said.
Mr Swinney said the fares cut would take place during the year from April and ministers would look at extending it if successful, subject to its “long-term sustainability”.
The move will reduce some fares by nearly half, such as an peak hour (anytime) return ticket between Edinburgh and Glasgow costing £27.60, which compares with an off-peak return of £14.20.
The Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency, which oversees the nationalised ScotRail, said details would follow early in the New Year as part of publication of the review.
It comes as Budget documents showed funding for the ScotRail and Caledonian Sleeper franchises is due to significantly rise again, from £664m last year and £721m this year to £823m next year.
The Scottish Greens, which secured the review as part of their power-sharing deal with the SNP agreed last year, said the move would offer “huge financial relief to commuters” and would help cut emissions by encouraging more people to switch from driving. The review was announced in August last year to “ensure a sustainable and integrated approach to public transport fares” because they were rising while the cost of car travel was falling.
ScotRail peak-hour commuting remains 40 per cent below pre-Covid levels as more Scots continue to work from home than people in other parts of the UK, as The Scotsman revealed last month.
Scottish Greens finance spokesperson Ross Greer said: “I am delighted we have been able to deliver this long-standing Green policy, one which will save rail users a huge amount of money during the cost of living crisis and which will help Scotland meet its climate ambitions. Removing peak fares will take away the two-tier system, which currently punishes those who have no choice over when they need to travel to work or study."
Robert Samson of passenger watchdog Transport Focus, said: “This is a welcome initiative that will benefit thousands of passengers and act as an incentive for non-users to change to a more sustainable travel mode.” Train drivers union Aslef also welcomed the move, which it had called for.
Mr Swinney also announced another £73m to complete the two delayed CalMac ferries being built at Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow, and four other ferries for the west coast operator, including two for Islay being constructed in Turkey. However, Holyrood transport committee convener Edward Mountain claimed that still left a £15m shortfall in the extra cost of the Ferguson ferries.
It’s part of the ferry services budget increasing from £288m last year and £296m this year to £440m in 2023/24. The rise is mainly accounted for by a near tripling of spending on vessels and piers from £67.5m to £189m.
A further £300,000 has been allocated to the Edinburgh Tram inquiry for the year from April after £500,000 in each of the past two years, raising the question as to when its long-awaited report will be published. Hearings finished four years ago.