Anger as bus operator hikes up return fare by 65% on first day of service

A JEDBURGH family has reacted angrily to the decision by the region’s largest bus operator to raise the price of a day return fare between the town and Hawick by nearly 65 per cent.

Now David Everson has written, not only to the company, but also to local MP Michael Moore to complain about the hike on behalf of his wife Elaine and daughter Maria, 16, who both use the service daily to get to work.

He also contacted TheSouthern which last week revealed that First in Scotland East had decided to register service 20 (Kelso-Jedburgh-Hawick) with the Scottish Traffic Commissioners and run it on a commercial basis without recourse to subsidy.

The company thus usurped a number of local operators, including MacEwan’s who had previously run buses on the route and who had submitted a tender to Scottish Borders Council which has traditionally subsidised the service because it was deemed “socially necessary”.

It is understood financial support from the council to the tune of around £250,000 was being sought to cover the cost of running the service, with the local authority being partially reimbursed via fare income.

The decision of First to circumvent this process and run the service on a purely commercial basis from Monday was met with scepticism by Jedburgh councillor Len Wyse who this week described the fare hike as “alarming and shocking”.

Mrs Everson, 43, who works at Morrisons supermarket in Hawick, described how she and Maria had boarded the bus on Monday expecting to pay £3.45 for their return journey. Instead they were told by the driver that the new daily return fare was £5.40.

“I was absolutely disgusted that this could happen without prior warning or consultation on the very first day of First operating the route commercially,” said Mrs Everson.

“It’s bad enough for me in terms of denting the household budget, but at least I work 30 hours a week.

“But it is much worse for Maria who works between 12 and 16 hours a week spread over five days and is paid just £3.75 an hour at another Hawick retailer.

“This means she is now virtually having to pay to go to work and no-one can expect her to continue. I know another regular passenger from Jedburgh in the same boat who told me she will be forced to give up her job as a result.”

Asked to respond, Paul Thomas, managing director of First in Scotland East, issued the following statement: “First commenced operation of service 20 commercially on Monday. In order to sustain this service on a commercial basis, some of the previous fare levels were reviewed.

“At the same time we extended the range of discounted travel tickets which First offer in the Scottish Borders to those travelling on service 20.

“Regular travellers can save money through purchasing one of our zonal products where they can obtain unlimited travel from £3.15 per day if travelling in two zones over 28 consecutive days. Our customer services team are able to advise passengers on the best ticket type to suit individual travel needs.”

Colin Douglas, SBC’s passenger transport manager, told us: “This is now a commercial service so the council does not have a say in the level of fares charged. MacEwan’s were charging less than the recommended return fares which has exacerbated the situation.

“At a meeting in Hawick on Tuesday night, First representatives advised passengers to buy multi-journey tickets such as 10 journey tickets which they advised will give significant savings, particularly if an annual ticket was to be bought – “I am sure there are ways of spreading payment for this and I would urge passengers to check out these deals.”

But Councillor Wyse said it was “ridiculous” to expect low-paid passengers to stump up the price of an annual ticket.

“To raise a daily return fare by nearly 65 per cent is a massive PR own goal by this company,” he told us. “It cannot be right that, because the route has been registered to run commercially, the council can have no say on fares and cannot put on an alternative service in competition.

“It is something I will certainly be stressing with the new Scottish Government after the election.”

Mrs Everson said of the fare discounts: “Who in their right mind, even it they could afford it, which I certainly cannot, is going to buy an annual ticket for a service which will soon have no passengers?”