Alastair Dalton: Our favourite form of public transport is in trouble

East Coast Buses' new fleet includes more legroom, improved lighting and information screens. Picture: East Coast Buses
East Coast Buses' new fleet includes more legroom, improved lighting and information screens. Picture: East Coast Buses
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Scotland’s favourite form of public transport is not in good shape, according a report published this week by the body representing bus firms.

Operators have pretty much everything against them, from traffic congestion reducing buses to a walking pace in city centres to fares rising higher than inflation.

Travelling by any other means is becoming more popular, be it car, train or taxi – and now even by bike, as The Scotsman has highlighted.

Pretty much the only things going in buses’ favour are population growth and new, higher-quality vehicles being introduced, the KPMG study for the Confederation of Passenger Transport found.

The immediate outlook from a national perspective is not good, with operators complaining of increasing costs and reduced government support, which, when added to its other ills, threaten a continuing downward spiral.

Official figures published in September showed the total number of bus journeys made in Scotland tumbled by 27 million from 436 million to 409 million over the four years to 2015, and the decline appears to have accelerated, with provisional figures for last year showing a further 16 million loss.

However, the picture is by no means universally gloomy, and it does beg the question as to why struggling operators have failed to take a leaf out of the book of the successful ones.

In my view, buses need to be run to attract the first-time passenger, but all too often I have found attempting to travel by bus a frustrating exercise that feels like trying to break into an impenetrable world, a domain reserved for those who already know the ropes.

It’s the basics that matter – and must be easy to find and understand – such as: Where does the bus go, when, and how much will it cost?

Then, once you’ve boarded, are you in a clean and pleasant environment, and how do you know when you’ve reached your stop?

Try that with some operators and it’s a challenge finding where their buses go, while you have to go to the bus stop itself to find the times because the online timetable is skeletal.

As for knowing what the correct “exact fare” is, you’ll need a sufficient variety of coins to cover every possible amount.

I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation as to why Lothian Buses in Edinburgh is one of the few firms to have got most of this right.

But it now appears to have also turned round what by all accounts was a dire operation in East Lothian, which it took over from First, one of Britain’s biggest bus companies.

In just over a year, the new East Coast Buses has increased the total number of passengerss by 30 per cent to more than three million. What they have done is simple – and obvious: to put passengers back at the heart of the operation. New buses have been bought, with extra legroom, Tube-style route maps in the interiors, information screens and more attractive lighting. Demotivated staff have been given new uniforms, and their facilities, such as rest areas, improved.

The company says that’s helped transform the service they provide, a claim which has been corroborated by local politicians and watchdogs. One told me the change has been like night and day, turning a very poor service into one of the best in Scotland. Another said quality and reliability has been much improved.

The challenge for the rest of the industry is to meet – or surpass – the standards of this newcomer. Keep me posted?