Bus fears as First usurps local operators

SBC's Len Wyse with winners of the Scottish Borders Floral Gateway competition
SBC's Len Wyse with winners of the Scottish Borders Floral Gateway competition

A SENIOR councillor has expressed concern over the future of bus services in the Borders.

It follows the news that the region’s largest operator First Group has agreed to carry out, from Monday, a major contract on a purely commercial basis, without any recourse to subsidy from Scottish Borders Council.

The firm’s decision to register Service 20 (Hawick to Kelso, via Denholm and Jedburgh) directly with the Traffic Commissioners effectively takes the contract out of council control, despite the fact the local authority has deemed the service “socially necessary”.

The shock move came just two days before the April 4 deadline for tenders which had been invited by SBC for the provision of passenger transport on the route.

And it means that one of the bidders – MacEwan’s – which has held the contract since 2009. will have to close its depot in Jedburgh with the loss of six jobs.

MacEwan’s depot manager Donald Cameron claimed this week that it was not possible to operate the service without subsidy.

“I reckon that running this as a commercial service will result in a loss of at least £100,000 a year,” said Mr Cameron. “I cannot believe that anyone can sustain that type of loss for any length of time and you have to wonder, if First decides to call it a day, if there will be local operators to take their place.”

Also vying for the contract were two other Jedburgh-based firms, Munro’s and Hogg’s, and it is understood First also submitted a bid before its decision to register the service.

Under the contract system operated by SBC, all fares taken by operators are returned to the council while the subsidy – the amount being sought by the operators in the tendering process – covers running costs with a profit margin built in. Not surprisingly, Jedburgh councillor Len Wyse, who is SBC’s executive member for environmental services, is worried about the impact on his home town.

“Naturally, the loss of MacEwan’s depot is regrettable and, although First’s decision to run this as a commercial service will save the council at least a six-figure sum, I’m most concerned that this is an attempt by a large operator to use its power to snuff out smaller businesses.

“I will be discussing this with colleagues on the council in the days ahead.”

Paul Thomas, managing director of First Scotland East, confirmed his firm would start operating the service on a commercial basis from Monday.

“We believe this service can be sustained commercially,” he told us. “This can be done through integrating the operation with other services operated by First and thus overall savings can be made.

“There is also scope to review some of the current fare levels while extending the range of discounted travel tickets we can offer.

“We will be undertaking a route marketing campaign to promote this service ... to increase local awareness and attract more customers.”

Colin Douglas, SBC’s passenger transport manager, said that under the Transport Act there were two ways of running bus services: either commercially and totally independent of the council; or with councils putting them out to contract if it is considered the service is socially necessary.

“Up until now, Service 20 has always been a contract let by the council, but the First proposal takes it out of the council arena and it will not cost the council any money.

“The council will have no say in the service other than perhaps in how it is publicised in our timetable books. Any operator could have decided to register the service. First has said it will operate the existing timetable, but it will need drivers, so there will be no reduction in the number of jobs in the area.

“We will monitor the situation and look after the interests of the travelling public as best we can. Should the commercial service cease some time in the future, the council would need to consider its position. Clearly there are a number of operators in the Jedburgh area, so we would expect healthy competition for the work, should that situation arise.”

Mr Cameron and most of his staff were due to attend a First briefing in Galashiels yesterday to discuss re-employment, but he remains sceptical about the long-term impact of his erstwhile rival’s decision.

“I know the council is pushed for cash, but from the tender bids received before this decision, it must be aware that this route cannot possibly be operated commercially,” said Mr Cameron. “The public should be concerned that, if First cuts journeys, increased fares or pulls the plug on this, there may be no local operators left to step into the breach. If that happens, this will be a false economy.”