Amid a growing backlash to ScotRail’s decision to cut a third of its services due to a shortage of available drivers, Jenny Gilruth said that plans are being “worked up” for the match, as well as other unspecified events.
It comes as the railway workers at the Scottish Government-owned operator are to be balloted on strike action after the RMT union rejected its 2.2 per cent pay offer as "derisory." The newly nationalised firm is already mired in a dispute with Aslef, the train drivers’ union, which has also rejected the latest pay offer.
Since The Scotsman revealed the cuts to the timetable on Monday - two days before the official announcement - there has been widespread anger from ordinary passengers, as well as hospitality and entertainment businesses.
The temporary timetable, which the government said it is designed to “give certainty” to rail travellers, has culled around 700 weekday services, with the last train on many routes leaving up to four hours earlier than usual.
The extent of the cuts has sparked ire among sports fans and gig-goers, who point out that the scrapping of late-night trains has played havoc with their plans.
Since Monday, for example, the last service from Glasgow to Aberdeen has been departing at 6.41pm, nearly three hours earlier than normal. The last train from Glasgow to Edinburgh, via Falkirk, now leaves at 10.15pm, with services to Inverness, Dundee and Perth departing at 7.07pm, 7.10pm and 7.37pm respectively.
As things stand, those reduced services will have a major impact on supporters from across the country, who are set to descend on Hampden for the 1 June World Cup qualifier match.
Cuts to suburban services also means that the last train departing Mount Florida - the nearest station to the stadium - is scheduled for 8.46pm, just as the second half gets underway.
The North East Tartan Army, one of the biggest supporter branches, has laid on two buses to the Ukraine game, but they had sold out long before ScotRail announced the service cuts.
Ms Gilruth told The Scotsman that “plans are also being worked up for events such as the Scotland v Ukraine match,” but declined to give any detail, or provide assurances that similar arrangements are being worked on for Scotland’s UEFA Nations League game against Armenia, which is taking place at Hampden on 8 June.
The Scottish Conservatives said it was vital that Ms Gilruth detailed plans to accommodate those fans travelling to the games.
Liam Kerr, the party’s shadow secretary for net zero, energy and transport, said the situation demonstrated how “absurd” the new scaled-back timetable is.
“The play-off with Ukraine is Scotland’s most important World Cup clash since we last reached the tournament itself in 1998, so the SNP government and ScotRail must ensure the tens of thousands of fans attending can get home that night,” he said.
“We know that much of the Tartan Army hail from our northern cities, so they need to be catered for appropriately. It’s completely unacceptable that the last trains to Aberdeen, Dundee and Perth leave before the match has even kicked off.
“Many of these supporters will have work the following morning, even assuming they can afford the expense of an overnight hotel stay in Glasgow. ScotRail simply must lay on additional, later services that night.
While focus has fallen on the Scotland fixtures, the ongoing reduction to ScotRail’s services also impacts on those people travelling across the country for evening events.
Over the next fortnight, for example, tens of thousands of music fans are set to attend concerts across the country by high-profile artists such as Emile Sande, The Script, My Chemical Romance. and Kasabian.
The Scottish Beer & Pub Association said the rail cuts were a “blow” to the sector, particularly at a time when it had hoped for an upturn in trade as Scotland emerges from the pandemic.
Rural MSPs have called on the government to provide urgent assurances to those who rely on the train network to access work, medical care and onward travel.
The independent watchdog Transport Focus has also called for the axed last trains of the day to be reinstated after being led to believe they would be protected.
Ms Gilruth said she was “absolutely clear” that the temporary cancellations are disruptive, impacting on passengers and businesses.
She met with ScotRail officials on Friday, and said there was a “collective recognition” that a review of the revised temporary is carried out “quickly.”
But she added: “It is also clear that the potential outcome of other ballots for industrial action, including in areas beyond our control, could impede any efforts to reintroduce services. That is why ScotRail will be taking a considered approach to increasing services but will make every effort to action them at the earliest sustainable opportunity.
“It is also important to note that, while both regrettable and necessary, the temporary timetable gives passengers more certainty for the short term, rather than being faced with unplanned cancellations such as those experienced the last few weekends.”
Ms Gilruth continued: “ScotRail have also given me their assurances they will continue the work already underway to not only train more drivers but recruit more too. Although more drivers currently work for ScotRail than in many previous years - the reliance on rest-day working must be reduced and, as far as possible, eliminated. That is the focus of ScotRail and of this government.”