Bus companies in Scotland have been criticised for cutting “essential” bus routes despite receiving almost £300m in public money – including government Covid-19 bailouts – since the start of the year.
“Unprecedented” grants were paid to bus companies by the Scottish Government both under the concessionary travel scheme and through Covid-19 aid to help them through the pandemic.
Campaigners and opposition politicians said the payments were needed but claim taxpayers have been short-changed because government grants did not include conditions to protect existing bus routes and ensure affordability.
A freedom of information request by Friends of the Earth (FoE) Scotland revealed that from January until October 2020, bus companies received £192,655,176 under the National Concessionary Travel Scheme from the Scottish Government.
The government also agreed to pay a bus service operators’ grant of £39,918,536, calculated to include additional support due to the coronavirus, as well as Covid-19 “re-start” support grants – which replaced the earlier Covid-19 support payments – worth £78,626,343.
In December Transport Scotland announced it was extending financial support for bus services in Scotland until 31 March 2021, with up to £191.3m made available over 40 weeks.
Clauses in the existing contracts dictate that in return for public cash companies must commit not to reduce the number of kilometres travelled.
However, concerns have been raised that contracts still allow operators to cut the least profitable routes, and, instead, have more buses running on the most “viable” journeys.
Local groups across the country have been campaigning throughout the year to save a number of routes, which have since been cut or threatened. They include multiple bus routes run by First Bus in Glasgow by Stagecoach in Fife and Stirling.
Other services across the country – from West Dunbartonshire to the Highlands – have been affected with many local MPs and MSPs, from all parties, as well as Scottish Government ministers, intervening to urge bus companies to reconsider.
In Dundee bus users were warned in November to expect the biggest change to services “since the 1950s” with local politicians warning of the negative impacts on older people and others dependent on the service.
A spokesperson for bus company Xplore, which runs buses in Dundee, insisted it was consolidating “an overly complicated network”, claiming “consolidation” was not the same as cuts.
While companies point to the impact of Covid-19 restrictions as the reason for the reductions to services, bus campaigners say they follow a decade of routes being pulled.
FoE Scotland claims disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic offered an opportunity for the Scottish Government to take back control, negotiating terms on bail-out grants that would offer the public a better and more reliable service.
It says more people would use a better bus service, driving down climate emissions.
Gavin Thomson, air pollution campaigner for the environmental campaign group, said: “The pandemic highlighted the central importance of keeping the bus network open – doctors, nurses and cleaners getting to hospitals, key workers and carers getting to where they needed to go. The most important journeys were being made by buses basically and it’s right that the Scottish Government stepped in.
“Where we think something has gone wrong is that the Scottish Government and the taxpayer don’t seem to have got much back for that investment. We see routes continuing to be cut even in the face of these huge bail-outs.
“And the routes that are cut are very often the ones connecting areas of deprivation with opportunity so in effect they are continuing and exacerbating inequality.”
Between 2008 and 2018 the industry lost 100 million passengers. Thomson claimed that was due to rocketing fares and plummeting numbers of routes.
Air pollution legal limits are also regularly breached in the country’s major towns and cities. Transport emissions are about a third of the Scottish total.
FoE Scotland claims it is evidence that privatisation is not working and is calling for the Scottish Government to take more concrete steps in support of bringing buses into public ownership.
It says the recent Transport Bill, which gives local authorities the power to run services on commercially competitive routes, allowing them to reinvest profits in improving the wider network, need to be further strengthened.
Thomson added: “A well run municipal bus company could reinvest profits from busy routes and open or reopen rather a lot of the routes that we’ve lost. And and if that was done alongside other car use reduction measures, we would start to move people from private cars onto buses.”
He said the Scottish Government should look to the example of the Welsh Government, which in October announced it was renationalising its rail network, bringing it into public ownership “to stabilise the network and keep it running”.
“If the transport system stays the way it is for the next decade, through the 2020s, there’s no way that will meet any of the climate targets that have been laid down by anyone any local authority or government,” he added.
Cat Hobbs, director of We Own It, which campaigns against the privitisation of public services, claimed that the grants given to companies, despite the cuts to routes, were “insulting” to the public and “a rip-off”.
She added: “It is absolutely staggering that bus companies have been handed multi-million pound bailouts while simultaneously cutting services, leaving communities stranded and cut off.
“The public have had enough of being treated like mugs. Rather than using the pandemic to funnel cash into the pockets of private companies, our governments – whether in Holyrood or Westminster – should bring our buses into public ownership. That’s the only way we’ll build an affordable, effective, integrated public transport system that is fit for the 21st century.”
According to Ellie Harrison, of campaigning group Get Glasgow Moving, cuts to bus routes in the city were halted for a few months during lockdown but by June some were under threat.
The campaign group has been petitioning to save a number of routes including the X1, X2, 31 and 32 routes in the city’s east end, all run by First Bus.
The company told The Ferret that “they were not covering their costs pre-Covid, so had no chance of covering their costs in a post-Covid world” and said changes were made “in discussion with the relevant local authority”.
Harrison added: “It just highlights how absurd it is that transport is run for profit when it is the communities most in need who are the ones most likely to get their routes cut.
“After the pandemic public transport is going to need the rebrand of its life. We could do that by having public control that allowed us to deliver something really great – a safe, sustainable and affordable service that goes where people want to go.”
Scottish Labour transport spokesperson Colin Smyth first raised the issue of bailouts with the Scottish Government in September but says it has remained unaddressed.
“No one disputes the need for the Scottish Government to step in to support the bus sector during the pandemic and our key transport workers have done a heroic job to keep Scotland moving,” he added.
“But in contrast to the Welsh Government, there has been no meaningful conditionality attached to much of the funds handed out by the Scottish Government during the pandemic and as a result some big bus firms are taking the opportunity to cut routes.
“It’s time for the Scottish Government to understand that public transport is a public service and like all public services should be run for benefit of the public, not profits.”
Scottish Greens transport spokesperson John Finnie agreed that bailouts were necessary. However, he too said public ownership was needed. “Private bus operators work first and foremost for their shareholders,” he added.
“As the climate crisis deepens, we need public transport to be there for all our communities, not withdrawn even more from unprofitable routes.”
A spokesperson for Stagecoach said the company had “worked closely with Transport Scotland and local authorities to protect bus routes, agree service levels and ensure resources are targeted where needed most”. It claimed it had not profited from the Scottish Government grants.
First Bus said the grants did not mean it had to stick to the pre-Covid network. However, the firm added that ensuring “key workers are able to carry out their journeys” could mean some routes became more frequent, with resources redeployed accordingly.
Focussed on parternship
Paul White, director of the Confederation of Passenger Transport (CPT) Scotland, insisted that over 95 per cent of the pre-Covid bus network had been re-introduced or retained.
“Public transport, both bus and rail, globally has been impacted severely by Covid-19, regardless of the regulatory model,” he added.
“Scottish operators are focused on working with local and national government to deliver the Bus Partnership Fund and to facilitate the ambitious targets with the Climate Change Plan by growing sustainable and active travel.
“It is our belief that this is the best way to improve bus services and reduce carbon emissions – goals both CPT and Friends of the Earth share.”
A spokesperson for Transport Scotland stressed that there are already conditions attached to the financial support provided to bus operators. They include the need to consult local transport authorities, and to consider the needs of key workers.
They added: “One metre physical distancing can reduce carrying capacity on a bus to as little as 35 per cent of normal. This means that, even with our support and this level of service, bus operators have to make difficult decisions about where best to deploy the capacity they have.
“In some instances, services will have been adjusted, in line with our funding conditions, to meet current demand safely, reduce the risk of overcrowding and maintain connectivity.”
This story was published in tandem with the Sunday National.