“The biggest problem with the bus service is evenings and weekends. They start too late and finish too early,” says Catriona in Beauly. She’s one of hundreds of people who’ve been contributing in recent months to my Better Buses campaign. Bus journeys account for more than three quarters of all public transport journeys, and the crisis in this vital public service needs to go straight to the top of the new Transport Secretary’s to-do list.
Bus journeys represent people going to work, school, college and university, attending doctors and hospitals, visiting friends and family, or going to the shops. For people who are looking for work, a reliable and affordable bus route to their local JobCentre is often their only option. Despite this, bus services are treated as anything but a public service across most of Scotland.
As Amy in Glasgow said: “I work with young people under 25 and think the prices for people on low incomes is too high.” But compare those comments with this, from Christine in Edinburgh: “No complaints about Lothian Buses. Fantastic service!”
What is it that the Edinburgh area has that the rest of Scotland envies? Public ownership.
Bus services in the capital city managed to survive the privatisation obsession of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in the 1980s but sadly the rest of Scotland was left to the whims of commercial interests.
There’s been a real lack of focus on this issue by successive Scottish Governments since devolution. As a result, we face a crisis with cuts to services and fares constantly rising, and communities outside the cities left isolated. Over the past ten years, one fifth of bus routes in Scotland have been cut and the number of journeys has fallen by 46 million. During that period, bus fares have gone up by 13.5 per cent above inflation.
A report by Citizens Advice Scotland earlier this year showed that two thirds of Scots are dissatisfied with the frequency of their local bus services, while over half say services are late. In March this year, I led a Holyrood debate on the need for better buses, and I intend to keep this issue on the parliament’s agenda.
The government has introduced a Transport Bill but it’s going to need an upgrade if we really want to make progress. Ensuring public ownership is vital if we want to reverse the decline in usage.
The Bill would enable public bodies to step in where private operators fail but would not stop commercial interests "cherry-picking" the most profitable routes. A Panelbase poll of 1,000 Scots shows that 58 per cent believe bus services should be run by public operators. Only 15 per cent believe they should be run by private firms, with the remainder saying they don't know.
The poll also shows publicly-run bus services are popular with all groups of voters, including 73 per cent of people who say they voted SNP in the last election and even 46 per cent of people who voted Tory.
This polling shows that the new Transport Secretary has work to do to get on board with public opinion. People rightly view public transport as a public service and it should be run as such. Successive governments have been happy to spend millions on motorways and encourage the growth of air travel, yet bus services - the most common form of public transport - have been left to wither. The publicly-run success story that is Lothian Buses - hailed quite rightly by Christine and others from Edinburgh - should be the norm across Scotland. If ministers are wise they will strengthen the Transport Bill to reflect the public's priority.
As well as public ownership, we need to ensure cleaner, greener vehicles. Having visited companies such as Alexander Dennis in Falkirk, I know we have the engineering and manufacturing expertise to build modern public transport vehicles to serve our communities. Scotland has the potential to create a first-rate “mass transit system” - as our American friends put it - that matches the best in the world.
Sadly, the new Transport Secretary’s first appointment was a visit to the Traffic Scotland control centre to monitor queues on trunk roads. The government’s own agency, Transport Scotland, churns out almost daily pronouncements about the Aberdeen bypass, the dualling of the A9, the extra Forth Road Bridge (or the Queensferry Crossing to give it its proper name). It’s time to recognise how outdated and unequal it is to lavish so much attention on new roads and private motor cars. As the science fiction writer JG Ballard noted: “I think the key image of the 20th century is the man in the motor car. It sums up everything: speed, drama, aggression.”
Surely the image Scotland wants to project in the 21st century is one of equal access and sustainability. In which case, all aboard for Better Buses.