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Wheels in Motion: Should Scotland take the same route as Greater Manchester on public transport?

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham at the launch of the Bee Network

Wheels in Motion: Should Scotland take the same route as Greater Manchester on public transport?

It had been, according to Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham, a “bumpy” couple of days. 

Bus services in key parts of the region had come back under public control for the first time in almost 40 years, and though there had been a buzz about the yellow-liveried Bee Network fleet, it hadn’t all been positive. The mid-September launch brought with it with Burnham called “teething problems” – late running services, cancellations, app glitches and issues with ticketing – but “by and large, things are running well”. 

“Buses have got better, fares have got lower,” Burnham said of the new service. “Finally, bus operators are accountable to the public. For decades people have had no comeback if the buses were late or didn’t turn up at all. The operators were able to suit themselves. Well, they can’t any more.” 

It’s the sort of thing that could be done in Scotland under the terms of the Transport (Scotland) Act 2019, which gives local authorities the power to franchise services and set up their own municipal operators. Though delayed, the remaining powers are expected to be introduced to Holyrood before the year is out, and there are signs of movement at local level. In Midlothian, the council is scoping out offering a small l service primarily to cover communities left with limited service, if any, by the withdrawal of commercial providers, while Highland Council began a pilot in-house bus project at the start of the year covering both school and passenger services. Eight routes are on offer, connecting communities like Tomich with Dingwall and Drumnadrochit with Inverness.

SNP councillor Ken Gowans, who chairs the council’s economy and infrastructure committee, says all eight pilot routes have “proved to be a success” and the enterprise should save the local authority around £1.4m a year – but it’s not just about that. “The project is about providing improved and more inclusive services for communities,” he said. “Now that the initial pilot routes are underway and doing well, it is time to upscale and look at expanding and exploring opportunities for additional work streams.” It’s a move Kate Willis, Green councillor for Fort William and Ardnamurchan, supports. “If we want people to leave their cars at home, and we do, we must ensure there is a good public transport alternative to make it possible,” she said.

“Buses are a public service, and they should be run for the public good, not the profit of shareholders.” 

The Scottish Government wants to get people out of their cars. Transport is the largest contributor to harmful emissions and the SNP-Green administration has an “ambition to phase out the need for new petrol and diesel cars” by 2032 as part of efforts to cut greenhouses gases by 90 per cent by 2040.

Its National Transport Strategy runs until then and aims to address inequality by making sure there’s a “modern and accessible” system in place across the country. Active transport – walking and wheeling – is at the top of its “sustainable transport hierarchy”, with public transport in the middle and private cars at the bottom, and it wants to change travel behaviours. The new regulations could help deliver that change, but they come against a backdrop of declining bus use. 

Passenger journeys by bus have fallen by 52 per cent since their 2007-08 peak, as reported in the latest Scottish Transport Statistics bulletin from Transport Scotland. Most of these journeys were made in urban areas, with far fewer rural residents hopping on board. Usage plummeted during the pandemic and recovery is underway, with an 87 per cent jump in the number of journeys taken in 2020-21, compared with figures for the previous year. But that’s done little to level the drop-off and contrasts with the trend for the train.

Transport Scotland recently toasted the busiest off-peak month for the now-nationalised network since 2015. Ticket sales in August were buoyed by the Edinburgh festivals, international rugby clashes and the UCI Cycling World Championships, taking journey numbers to 102 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, and it is hoped that the scrapping of peak fares in a six-month pilot scheme from this month will entice more to take the train. It’s a UK-first and comes 18 months after the national rail franchise was taken into public ownership. 

But Scotland’s communities are far more reliant on buses than trains and it is here that the Scottish Government has the greatest distance to travel. Almost four in ten local bus routes have been axed since 2007, according to figures from the Traffic Commissioner, dropping from almost 3,200 to fewer than 2,000.  

Transport campaigner Ellie Harrison knows the landscape well. It has been seven years since the artist began her campaign for a publicly-owned bus company for Greater Glasgow and she has kept her foot on the pedal ever since. She’s the power behind the Get Glasgow Moving campaign and her enthusiasm for the omnibus is such that she has staged her Starlight Express-inspired show, Bus Regulation: The Musical, in several cities. In it, rollerskating performers reenact the history of public transport in Strathclyde since the post-war period.  

The group wants a “Transport for London-style” regional transport authority with power over local networks. It’s calling for improved integration, multi-modal smart-ticketing, capped daily fares and the re-regulation of buses – essentially what Greater Manchester is putting in place with its phased rollout of the Bee Network – and with the launch of its Better Buses for Strathclyde campaign, it wants that for the whole of the region currently covered by Strathclyde Passenger Transport (SPT).

The push is strongly influenced by Manchester’s experience and has launched as SPT develops a new strategy covering the next 15 years of bus travel in the 2.2 million-strong region, which takes in 12 council areas. The transport body itself says “it is abundantly clear” that the status quo “is not delivering for passengers or wider society”. 

“Who wouldn’t agree with this?” asks Harrison. “The only people who wouldn’t want the buses back under public control are the private bus companies. 

“Our buses in Glasgow have been run into the ground over the last 40 years since the buses were deregulated in 1986.”  

For Harrison, franchising has been “the F word” – “massive taboo” that people didn’t want to talk about. But now Better Buses for Strathclyde is backed by Friends of the Earth Scotland, the Scottish Trades Union Congress, the Scottish Pensions Forum and others and failing to franchise, Harrison argues, means failing communities and widening inequalities.  

She has praise for community-based alternatives such as that offered in rural Perthshire by the Glenfarg Community Transport Group, which set up in April after retirement took the local bus company off the roads. One of around 20 such community schemes in Scotland, its carries more than 300 passengers per week across 11 daily runs.

But while Harrison is a believer in the power of communities, she says not everyone, everywhere, can do it for themselves. “The more spare time, the more well-to-do a community is – the more middle class they are – the more they are going to be able to put resources into running a community bus service. It's great if you can do that. But the communities most in need are the ones that don't have the resources and that's why our public bodies have to get right, get rid of those inequalities and close the gaps in our public transport network so that everybody is served and the communities most in need are getting a real upgrade.” 

And Harrison is not the only one campaigning for change. Having previously protested local service cuts, Save Our Buses (West Lothian) is now contesting further reductions in the area, which were announced in the same week that the Bee Network launched. McGill’s, Scotland’s largest independent bus company, will axe all of its West Lothian services by December.

The Greenock-based operator took over routes there from FirstBus in 2022, but said a spend of around £4.5m since then into its McGill’s Eastern Scottish arm had failed to “turn round the ailing business”. Competition from rivals and the railway, plus long-term passenger decline, were amongst the reasons given. CEO Ralph Roberts said “too many operators serving too few customers for too long” had “destabilised the marketplace”. Dee Pringle, one of the group’s founders, told the BBC that “everyone is angry about this announcement” and before the week was out, First Minister Humza Yousaf had agreed to attend a crisis meeting with the local authority. “The only solution is funding from the Scottish Government to support local bus services,” said its leader, Lawrence Fitzpatrick. “That is a message that has come across loud and clear from the bus operators themselves,” the Labour councillor said. 

Linlithgow councillor Sally Pattle, who sits on the board of regional transport partnership Sestran, says the future depends on connectivity. “Our population is expected to increase massively over the next 20 or so years, more than any other region in Scotland,” she says, “but we are facing smaller communities being entirely cut off from public transport and the Scottish Government has a commitment to cut car use by 2030. I don’t see how you will be able to do that without public transport.” 

One week on from the Bee Network’s launch, Andy Burnham told the Greater Manchester Green Summit there had been some sticky moments for the yellow fleet. “The scale of what we’ve done, taking control of an entire system, gluing back together a system that was very fragmented – the fact that we’ve done it without more disruption is probably to the credit of Transport for Greater Manchester,” he told the audience.

For the first time in almost four decades, bus services are under local control in Bolton, Wigan, as well as parts of Bury, Salford and Manchester. All Greater Manchester buses will be part of the network by 2025 and fares have been capped at £2 on single journeys until September next year. According to the mayor, its launch has been a “coming of age moment for English devolution”. What can be achieved under Scottish devolution is yet to be seen. However, Burnham is convinced that this formula is the way ahead for the people of his area. “The mantra that the market is the answer to everything has been disproved by bus deregulation,” he said. 

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