Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Missing the bus

On Monday, First Bus announced the closure of its Dalkeith depot, the withdrawal of nearly all of its services in Midlothian and the loss of up to 200 jobs.

There had been rumblings of service cutbacks in an earlier statement but I don't think anyone locally was expecting anything on this scale. The job losses are a particularly hard blow in the current economic climate, but I'm sure many more people face the risk of not being able to get to their work and have no alternative except perhaps to take two or more journeys via Cameron Toll or the city centre using a Lothian bus service - if indeed their community will now be served at all.

And this is why the cuts will hit so hard. Faced with unbeatable competition on routes run by publicly owned Lothian, First has retreated to cross county routes and those which connect communities not served directly by buses going to and from the city - the 141/142 being the main route, but others such as the 92A which currently provides the only direct link between Bonnyrigg and Gorebridge.

I have a certain sympathy for First's predicament - public transport has been a low on the SNP Scottish Government's priority list and bus operators like First will not run services at a loss over a prolonged period. However, First is not entirely blameless.

In 2008 I travelled to Falkirk to meet with Paul Thomas, Managing Director of First Scotland East. This followed critical comments I had made in the local press about First's apparent lack of a strategy in Midlothian. Our meeting was cordial, but I put across a number of points which although accepted at the time, were sadly not taken on board (if you forgive the pun).

Firstly, I said that passengers need to know that a service they intend to take when applying for a job will still be around in a few months' or years' time. Apart from the 141, First has continually re-routed, removed and introduced services - initially in a predatory manner designed to take passengers from Lothian routes. The ill-fated X77 ran in competition to Lothian's 31 for a while - but who wanted to take a decrepit, cold, dimly lit boneshaker when a 31 would be due along shortly? And that was another thing - running the X77 (and others) two minutes ahead of the Lothian service was, to say the least, cynical.

Another issue was frequency. At the time, the only direct link from where I live to Dalkeith or Straiton was the hourly 141. I could time my journey to leave, but if I missed the return there was an hour wait, and with First's refusal to join the Bus Tracker system, how do I know if I've missed it or it's running ten minutes late (in 2008 he said First were negotiating to join Bus Tracker).

If a bus runs every 15 minutes or less, then people will risk taking the journey. Any more and they may prefer, as I did, to travel to Dalkeith or Straiton via Cameron Toll on Lothian.

Fares are another issue. I understand that bus operations need to be financially viable. For a while, First undercut Lothian's fares on on X77 and 86A but not on those where there was no competition. Given the stark contrast in fares in places like East Lothian and Aberdeenshire, where First has a monopoly, what would have happened to those fares should Lothian have removed the 31 or 3? I'm pretty sure I know the answer to that one.

Some local communities are already organising to try to reverse the decision. Personally I think it's a waste of time. My experience of speaking with the bus companies, and I've also met Lothian's Operations Manager Bill Campbell a number of times, is to suggest viable routes and extensions to existing routes, then to publicise any new ones or changes in the community, as I have done through our community council's newsletter.

Of course it would help if the Scottish Government showed a bit of vision and put resources into stimulating demand and investment - not just giving money to bus companies, but giving local councils resources to build more bus shelters, bus lanes and install tracker systems. However, with priorities like building new bridges and motorways, it will have little money left over for preparing for the time when either oil costs so much or congestion such a problem that people will be looking for alternatives.

You could even say the Scottish Government has missed the bus on this - we certainly will in six weeks' time.

No comments:

Post a Comment