Bus firms stall over new station charges

EDINBURGH’S flagship city-centre bus station is facing a serious funding problem before it has even opened - because major bus companies don’t want to pay the charges set by the council to use it.

Firms believe the proposed charges are too high and at least one plans to carry on using free temporary street stops for many services instead.

Even if other bus firms agree to use the St Andrew Square station, the wrangle is likely to leave a 133,500 funding gap that will have to be picked up by the city council.

The new bus station in St Andrew Square is expected to open in November after two years of construction. It was commissioned as part of the 50 million Harvey Nichols redevelopment in the square and will provide much better facilities than its predecessor , including electronic passenger information, a public address system and security cameras.

But the running costs will be far higher as a result, at about 525,000 in 2002-3, compared with just 180,000 for the old station.

Higher charges for bus firms have been proposed to offset the cost - it is thought some involve rises of 50 per cent.

But the main operators - First, Citylink and Stagecoach - have baulked at the idea of paying them, as well as questioning ease of access to the station.

Although some First services are now expected to use the station, many others probably will not.

And while it is thought Citylink and Stagecoach can be wooed back, charges may have to be lowered to achieve that.

A report to councillors expected this week will state that: "The bus operators have reservations about the operational efficiency of the bus station and have expressed concerns about the suggested level of departure charges."

Officials say First has said it will probably operate "some" services from the station, but wants to carry on running others from Waterloo Place.

They were moved there two years ago to allow work to start on the new station and amount to "dozens" of departures per day.

First contributed about half the income for the old bus station. Citylink runs up to 80 services a day from Edinburgh , while Stagecoach runs about 12 per hour at peak times.

A total of 250,000 has been allocated to run the station from its opening in November to the end of the financial year in March.

But with the loss of income from First services, combined with a possible reduction in charges to make Citylink and Stagecoach happy, the net running cost will be about 383,500 - a shortfall of 133,500.

The plan is to meet that from the council’s transport budget.

It would be hard to force bus firms to use the station, as councils can only remove on-street bus stops on safety grounds.

Council transport leader, Councillor Andrew Burns, said: "We are going to have a top quality bus station, with facilities in the heart of the city .

"But we need companies to commit to coming back in, generating the income."

Gordon Dewar, First’s East of Scotland director, said the company was in "ongoing talks" with the council about a variety of issues, including charges.

But he added: "Bus stations are best suited to longer distance and express services, and to less frequent travellers It would clearly not be appropriate for all of First’s services to be routed through the station.

"First’s main focus is on maximum accessibility and visibility for passengers, particularly for shorter, high-volume services, and on-street facilities often serve these requirements best." A Stagecoach spokesman said: "We have some concerns about manoeuvrability and access and exit, and our passengers tell us they like leaving from St Andrew Square. We are also looking for a more realistic level of charges ."

A spokesman for Citylink said: "Citylink is interested in going into the bus station, and does want to pay. It has been sent a proposal and sent back a counter-proposal. "