VILLAGERS at risk of being marooned by a massive cull of bus services have vowed to defend the routes amid huge cutbacks to operations at First Scotland East.
Five communities are facing the threat of isolation from the public transport network following drastic proposals by the travel firm to slash bus services in the Lothians, axe up to 200 jobs and close its Dalkeith depot while scaling down its Musselburgh base.
Campaigners from Ormiston and Pencaitland in East Lothian, as well as Midlothian counterparts in Cousland, Millerhill and Newton Village, have railed against the move and vowed to protest “all the way to Alex Salmond”.
The firm said the decision had been triggered by years of poor trading in the areas, blaming a “challenging” economic climate, high fuel prices and cuts in funding. It is understood it has lost around £5 million from the under-performing routes since 2009.
Transport minister Keith Brown is set for crunch talks with First Group and Lothian Buses to discuss the withdrawal.
Neil Barker, managing director of First in Scotland, said it would take “something a bit leftfield” to prevent job losses and rescue the failing bus links. “The business in these areas has been losing money for a considerable period of time and a number of different approaches have been tried, but we can no longer afford to subsidise losses from elsewhere within the company,” he said.
But villagers today said they wouldn’t accept the cutbacks quietly.
Elizabeth Bryce, 63, a Newton Village resident who campaigned to have bus services in her area reinstated last year, said: “I will be phoning MSP Colin Beattie and I’ll be knocking on doors to get a petition up. We might go to parliament. I’m really disgusted. We will be going to the top with this petition – all the way up to Alex Salmond.”
The news comes days after a letter was signed by party leaders at Edinburgh City Council criticising cuts to the Bus Service Operators’ Grant and a change in how the subsidy is awarded, which they said would lead to fare hikes and less profitable routes being cut.
But despite opposition MSPs blaming government funding cuts for the current crisis, Mr Barker said soaring fuel costs, competition from Lothian Buses and poor trading in the areas was behind the decision. “Even without [government] changes this decision would have ended up being taken in the same, or very similar, way,” he said.
“This part of the business has been trading badly for a prolonged period of time.”
To offset the scale of job losses, First depots in Livingston and Galashiels may be invited to take on some of the staff let go.
Sandy Smart, regional industrial organiser for the Unite union, said proposals to close the Dalkeith base had come as a surprise as cuts were expected to be spread across the firm’s entire operation. Of the 287 First employees across its three Lothian depots – one base in North Berwick is unaffected by the plans – only 96 positions are likely to remain.
Colin Beattie, the Midlothian North and Musselburgh MSP, said key routes were being lost and he hoped Lothian Buses could pick up the slack, while Cllr Derek Milligan, leader of Midlothian Council, said he was “deeply concerned” communities would be left with “a vastly reduced bus service or, in some instances, no public transport at all”.
He said: “Thousands of our residents rely on public transport to get to and from work, to the shops, to hospitals and generally out and about. This will come as a devastating blow.
“I am meeting with the trade union representatives from Unite to see if we can take any action that might help. “First Bus has agreed to meet us as a matter of urgency. I’ve also asked officers to arrange meetings as soon as possible with other bus companies to ask if they would take up the routes being cut by First Bus.”
East Lothian Council leader Cllr Paul McLennan said as the changes were scheduled to begin in June or later, he would meet stakeholders to “plan for the future provision of services” and assured parents that buses would operate as normal until the summer break.
“We are disappointed that First Bus are cancelling or reducing a substantial number of bus services in East Lothian that provide important public transport links between our communities and other destinations further afield,” he said.
Gordon Mackenzie, transport convenor at Edinburgh City Council, said the travel cuts was one of the “biggest events” he could recall in recent years but said Capital residents would not be “greatly affected”.
“I think it will be a big loss for the area around Edinburgh, beyond the city boundaries it will have a major impact for the travelling public,” he said.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “This is obviously disappointing news. First Group’s preferred option remains identifying a bidder for the routes, but market conditions make that difficult.”
‘WE’LL FIGHT THIS VIGOROUSLY’
SHOCKED residents affected by the swingeing cuts said yesterday that they would fight to reverse the decision.
Scott Gillies, 40, vice-chair of Ormiston Community Council, said: “We will be fighting this vigorously. This is a serious threat to bus services and there will be a campaign started certainly as soon as we can get everybody together.”
He added: “It’s shocking, to be honest. This will have a major effect on all of us. Lots of people in the village rely on the bus.”
Ralph Averbuch, 44, chair of Pencaitland Community Council, said: “I do not expect for a moment that this will be taken lying down by the people affected because they are deeply upset by cuts already in place.
“A number of community councils which have been affected by cuts in the past have begun a campaign to obtain the data that we will take to councillors to make clear the level of feeling about this.
“First needs to look again at the one-size-fits-all approach that they’ve taken to bus services out here.
“Double-deckers make lots of sense in the city but here it makes more sense to have connecting routes that go to Haddington, Tranent and North Berwick, where you can get the train or bus into town.”
It’s not surprising that they have acted swiftly to address losses.
The situation will have been made worse by the reductions to concessionary travel payments and operators’ grants, which will only make an already bad situation worse.
The impact on the majority of passengers will be modest or slight, as most of the services being wound down parallelled Lothian Buses’ services, and I have no doubt that on the routes where First Group are simply copying Lothian’s services, Lothian will provide any extra seats needed.