Cheaper fares, better services – Labour’s pledge on the buses

More control over Scotland’s buses could be introduced to improve services and increase passengers under legislation launched by Scottish Labour.

More control over Scotland’s buses could be introduced to improve services and increase passengers under legislation launched by Scottish Labour.

Options could include “franchising” local bus networks like trains, with operators forced to agree to minimum service and quality levels.

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Former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray, who is launching the initiative, said it was needed because the industry had reached crisis point since the failure of previous attempts at regulation.

He said services had been cut, including in his East Lothian constituency, while passengers had suffered fare hikes.

Mr Gray, who once worked as a bus conductor, also stressed buses remained by far the most popular form of public transport in Scotland, with 400 million journeys a year – five times as many as on ScotRail.

Bus operators currently decide when and where they run, receiving subsidies from local authorities for little-used services seen as socially important.

By contrast, the ScotRail train operating franchise, currently held by Aberdeen-based FirstGroup, involves ministers setting service levels in return for subsidies. Mr Gray said he would launch a consultation over the next three months to help find the best form of bus regulation.

He plans to introduce proposals in a private member’s bill to the Scottish Parliament before the summer.

The former transport minister said the bill would give councils the power to “bundle” both profitable and loss-making bus routes together, with firms competing for the contract, or franchise.

This would specify routes, fares and bus quality, and include performance monitoring.

Mr Gray hoped the move would attract support from other parties, whose lack of backing scuppered Labour’s previous plans.

Mr Gray said: “It is time to accept the existing legislation has not worked, and put it right so that bus passengers throughout Scotland can expect a decent, regular, affordable bus service.

“Successive SNP governments have given little attention or support to Scotland’s buses cutting government funding of bus routes.”

Mr Gray is backed by bus workers’ union Unite, whose spokesman Jackson Cullinane said: “This bill will provide a better bus service for thousands of working people across Scotland and address the gaps in services which are currently failing many communities.”

Conservative transport spokesman Alex Johnstone said “blaming or reducing privatisation” would not improve buses.

He accused ministers of harming services by cutting budgets and not curbing free travel from those who could afford it.

The Scottish Government’s Transport Scotland agency said it had established an “impressive record” of £250 million annual bus funding, but a spokeswoman added: “We are interested in any proposals for change.”

Bus firms oppose more controls. The Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents operators, said: “Further regulation and contracts are not the panacea that Scottish Labour continues to believe they are.”

Spokesman Paul White said such contracts “transfer the financial risk of local bus networks to local taxpayers” and could “also result in higher fares and reduced services”.

Bill Campbell, operations director of Lothian Buses, Edinburgh’s main operator, said: “The current framework works well as far as those that travel with us is concerned.”

A spokesman for First said:”Greater regulation of the industry was fully investigated and rejected by the recent Competition Commission Inquiry into the bus industry.

“It will not change the challenging economic environment in which we are operating which impacts both on demand and the ability of public bodies to support bus services in the face of conflicting and pressing demands at a time of reduced public spending.”