SCOTLAND'S First Minister has admitted the lack of direct rail links following last year's Station Hotel fire is hurting Ayr's economy.

Speaking during a visit to Prestwick at the weekend, Humza Yousaf said there was always more that could be done to help deal with the problem of absentee landlords.

Rail services linking Ayr with Glasgow, Kilmarnock, Girvan and Stranraer were suspended when the fire gripped the south wing of the derelict former hotel building last September.

And although a shuttle train service is in place linking Ayr with Newton-on-Ayr and Prestwick Town, where passengers can change for onward connections towards Glasgow, there is currently no firm date for when demolition of the building might be complete and direct trains may be able to resume.

Work on the site is being carried out by South Ayrshire Council, but is being hampered by the Station Hotel building's absentee landlord, Malaysian businessman Ung Eng Huat.

Asked of there were plans to bring in new legislation to help authorities deal with absentee landlords, he said: "There's always more that we seek to do with properties with absentee landlords.

"The Station Hotel is been a major issue, not just because of the fire but because of the effect on the rail service.

"I know there's continued conversation going on with the council. If we can get the building demolished, we can get the rail services back running.

"It is having an effect on the local economy."

The fire, on Monday, September 25, extensively damaged the southern section of the building and led to the council concluding it had no option but to carry out demolition work on safety grounds.

Two dangerous building notices were served by the local authority on the building - one in 2013, which led to some work being carried out, and a second in 2018.

Five years passed with those issues going unaddressed.

Then came the deliberate fire last year.

The limited shuttle service towards Prestwick was introduced in November, but ScotRail has so far been unable to provide a similar shuttle train linking Ayr with Maybole, Girvan, Barrhill and Stranraer, with replacement buses provided instead.

At the weekend, campaigners from Stranraer urged swift action to reinstate the rail service south of Ayr.

South Ayrshire Council said it was working with ScotRail and other partners to ensure trains can run again "as soon as possible".

They plan to demolish the building and create a transport hub around the town centre site.

Campaign group Save Britain's Heritage has called for the retention of the Station Hotel’s north wing and tower as a key priority, backing calls from local campaigners to save what remains of the building.

A council spokesperson said recently: "Works at the former Station Hotel are continuing.

"We recently reported that we discovered damaged structure in the northern section of the building and that this will unfortunately impact the timeline of our safety works.

"We know this delay is frustrating for rail users and we are working closely with Network Rail and ScotRail to ensure that trains can operate from Ayr Station as soon as possible."

A ScotRail spokesman told the BBC at the weekend that an inspection of the northern section - including the tower - found "badly-burnt floor joists and a severely-damaged wooden support beam, which may need to be removed".

The spokesman said: "There is no update at the moment on the return of train services."