Bus boss in summit over deal with council as local service cuts loom

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THE future shape of local bus services, against a background of rocketing fuel prices and public spending cuts, will be discussed today.

The meeting between Paul Thomas, managing director of First, South East and Central, and Colin Douglas, Scottish Borders Council’s passenger transport manager, will discuss a range of issues, including cutting the number of journeys on the key Hawick to Carlisle (Service 95) route, which will take effect from this summer.

But the talks could also herald a new dawn in the way services are delivered and pave the way for a so-called quality partnership agreement involving operators and the cash-strapped council which, in the last financial year, subsidised local bus services to the tune of £3.75million.

Mr Douglas told Tuesday’s meeting of SBC’s executive it was likely to take a year to formalise the agreement: a mechanism whereby routes, timetables and operators would be specified, along with a pledge to provide low floor accessible vehicles.

For its part, the council would introduce traffic management measures, such as creating no-parking zones to help operators meet journey times, and upgrade bus stops.

“Such an agreement has the potential to speed up bus services, increase bus use and return services to better profitability, while reducing the amount of council funding support,” said Mr Douglas.

Earlier, he had stressed the imperative of balancing value for money for the council tax payer with the need to retain essential services.

And he won approval for a range of measures to cut the council’s outlay by £70,000.

There was, said Mr Douglas, an opportunity to reduce SBC’s current subsidy of £85,000 to First for operating service 95 from Hawick to Carlisle – currently the subject of a re-tendering process – to £67,500.

With Dumfries and Galloway Council already due to cut its support for the route, favoured by workers, shoppers and train passengers, Mr Douglas highlighted the potential to remove “middle of the day” journeys and re-time others.

“In essence the frequency [of journeys] would have to be reduced from hourly to two hourly to achieve the level of savings needed. Sunday journeys will need to be curtailed or cancelled.”

A similar shake-up awaits the Newcastleton to Carlisle service 127, with the council aiming to cut its £27,000 subsidy by £4,500 by terminating all daytime journeys at Canonbie where passengers can connect to the less frequent service 95. However, the two early-morning trips straight through to Carlisle for Newcastleton workers will be retained.

There will also be changes to town services in Hawick where subsidised services, run by First and Munro’s, expire on July 30. The latter had already handed back its early morning and late afternoon contracts, and both operators had advised that current provision could not be maintained in the face of declining patronage and rising costs.

Mr Douglas said the council would step into the breach with services for Stonefield, Longcroft Crescent and Hamilton Road being provided by SBC’s own minibuses, used for school and social work runs, but currently standing idle in late mornings and early afternoons. The new arrangement would still offer savings to the council of £4,500.

Finally, Mr Douglas revealed the council had intervened to halt the Munro’s contract, which costs SBC £53,400, serving Maxton, Bowden and Gattonside.

This represented a net cost of £6.05 per passenger journey and was “unsustainable”. It will be replaced by council minibuses operating on a “demand responsive” basis at half the current cost.