Public transport in the Borders faces an uncertain future after a bus company’s shock decision to withdraw its entire fleet from the region.
The impact on services and jobs of operator First Scotland East’s unexpected announcement this week is unclear, but concern has been expressed about the move, with Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire MSP John Lamont saying it will “put the whole transport system in the Borders at risk”.
First has sold its operations to West Coast Motors, and it will take over all its routes from Saturday, March 25, possibly rebranded as Borders Buses.
The firm’s Galashiels depot, Peebles, Hawick and Kelso outstations, together with all employees, will transfer to the new company.
First cites a 35% fall in passenger numbers on its main X95 Carlisle-to-Edinburgh service as the main factor in its decision.
The company blames the success of the Borders Railway for that decline, claiming the competition “made it difficult to maintain a sustainable service”.
It is not clear whether vehicles will be involved in the transfer, leaving open the possibility that new buses could operate on the X95 route in the near future.
Mr Lamont, a Conservative, said: “This is hugely concerning news, which puts the whole transport system in the Borders at risk.
“The impact on local jobs and the existing bus routes remain unclear.
“While I understand there will be no immediate changes, it will be open to the new operator to reduce services after a relatively short time.
“This would be a huge blow to many people who rely on bus routes.
“Residents in the Borders have already been forced to stay at home or use their cars by an ever-shrinking bus service, and I fear the latest announcement will just further reduce passenger numbers.
“Clearly, the Borders Railway has had an impact on the viability of bus services in the area, so I would expect the council to look closely at the effect of the new line on bus routes.
“We need to be looking at better integrating the transport network in the Borders so that the whole area benefits from the railway.”
Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale MSP Christine Grahame is also concerned and is seeking an urgent meeting with Colin Craig, managing director of West Coast Motors.
The SNP MSP said: “This announcement was a surprise to me, though I have been aware for some time that the X95 was subsidising other less profitable First routes in the Borders.
“The absolute priority must be maintaining continuity of service for all the communities First currently serves and the 113 local jobs it provides.
“I have had an early meeting with Paul McGowan, managing director of First Scotland East, and he has assured me that arrangements have been made with the new bus operator to take over the routes.
“First employs 113 staff across the Borders and Midlothian, and TUPE applies, meaning all First employees will keep their jobs, pay and conditions upon the transfer.
“The transfer of the routes to the new operator should be finalised by March 25.
“There is then a 10-week period, up until June 3, where no changes to the routes or timetables are permitted.
“At the start of that 10 weeks, the new operator must launch a four-week consultation with passengers. No route changes can happen until a further six weeks have passed.”
Mr McGowan, managing director of First Scotland East, said: “Despite the focus on services and the hard work of everyone across our business, unfortunately the introduction of the Borders Railway in 2015 has impacted on demand for bus travel, and our services are becoming increasingly unsustainable.
“I’m pleased we have an agreement in principle to sell the operations to West Coast Motors, a reliable and well-established transport company.
“We’re proud to serve the Borders community and would like to thank passengers for travelling with First Scotland East over the years.
“I can assure customers that we will continue to run services as normal throughout the proposed transition.”
As well as its Borders services, First is also withdrawing from all Midlothian routes.
A spokesperson for West Coast Motors said: “We are currently in advanced negotiations with First Scottish East regarding purchase of its operations in the Scottish Borders. It would be inappropriate to comment while those talks are ongoing.”
A Scottish Borders Council spokesperson said: “The council is aware of the discussions between First Scotland East and West Coast Motors regarding the purchase of First’s operations in the Borders.
“We will continue to engage with both operators during this process.
“Should the sale be concluded, the council will look forward to working with West Coast Motors, who are already well established in the Borders.”