South Scotland MSP Colin Smyth has warned that unless a public sector-led model for bus services is adopted in Dumfries and Galloway, including the council directly running many routes, the bus network will collapse.
The local MSP was commenting after councillors agreed at a recent meeting of the Communities Committee to pursue a new “partnership approach” between the private and public sector to try to sustain bus services locally.
The report to councillors describes the current mixture of private and public funded services as “disjointed, inefficient, costly and difficult to navigate for individuals”.
In 2019 the Scottish Parliament passed a new Transport Act that gives councils a range of new powers when it comes to bus services. This will include the right to directly deliver bus services thanks to amendments made to the legislation by South Scotland MSP Colin Smyth lifting the ban on councils running bus routes.
The historic law change secured by the local MSP means councils will soon have the power to run bus services directly or through setting up arms-length municipal bus companies with either model free to compete for any service or franchise.
Currently the only publicly owned municipal bus company in Scotland is Lothian Buses, whose existence pre-dates deregulation.
Colin Smyth said: “In recent years we have seen the bus network being dismantled route by route, fares have risen and passenger numbers plummeted, because big private bus firms have put profit before passengers.
“These cuts have been felt most by our rural communities but have also affected everyone trying to travel at nights and weekends when often there are no buses running anymore.
“The pandemic has exacerbated the fall in passenger numbers and without urgent action there is no doubt that the network will collapse.
“I am pleased therefore that the council intends to take a more proactive role in local bus services. That will hopefully at least delay the loss of some services and try to fill gaps left when private bus firms pull out because they can’t make enough money.
“However, in my view, public transport is a public service. Like all public services it should be accessible to all and be publicly owned and run. At the moment the council spends over £3m a year subsidising private bus firms to run bus services which will include a profit margin for those firms. In addition, the bus companies run all the commercial bus services that make a profit and get paid millions by the council to run school buses.
“As a result of new powers I proposed to the Transport Bill when it was passing through Parliament, the current ban on councils directly running bus services will soon be lifted. I hope then we will see the council not simply running bus routes the private firms don’t want even with a subsidy, but instead of giving big bus firms millions of pounds a year including a profit margin, the council use that money to run bus services themselves.
“In addition I hope the council also starts to run services on the bus routes that make a profit instead of leaving it to private firms, so that the income from fares goes on improving services not dividends to the shareholders of the big bus companies.
“The most successful bus service in Scotland is Lothian buses which is owned by the councils. Every penny made goes back into local transport services. Only by eventually adopting such a public sector led network can we stop the collapse of bus services in Dumfries and Galloway.”