MINISTERS have been warned that a slump in bus passenger numbers will make some services in Scotland unviable and that action is needed to curb a decline in the nation’s most favoured form of public transport.
The analysis has been made by Scottish Government-commissioned consultants who are supporting creating more bus priority areas on the nation’s roads to improve the financial sustainability of the nation’s buses – as calls increase for a return to public ownership.
Official figures show that bus fares have soared since deregulation 36 years ago – while passenger numbers have slumped.
Fares have risen by more than two-and-a-half times (159.4%) including inflation since 1995 and by 19% per cent in the five years to 2019/20.
Once adjusted for inflation the increase in the past 26 years has been 58.1% The number of passengers journeys has slumped from 644 million in 1986-87, the year in which deregulation occurred to 366 million in 2019-20, a reduction of 43% over 33 years.
In the five years to 2019/20 alone there was a 12% drop in journeys.
An official survey shows that the percentage of people who feel bus fares are good value has dropped from nearly two in three in 2016, to just over half in 2019.
Just one in four use a bus at least once a week.
Meanwhile over 10 years an extra £14m has been given to operators of bus services in Scotland by way of Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG), concessionary travel reimbursement and payments for supported services and currently stands at £326m.
Environmental groups have hit out at what they called the “disaster” of privatisation” and say the Scottish Government should rethink its strategy.
An analysis by consultants Jacobs and Aecom for Transport Scotland has said that further action in making life easier for coaches can “improve the image of bus travel if the financial sustainability of the industry is to be improved”.
It warned that reducing passenger numbers “risks driving down revenues and making some services unviable, resulting in cancellations and, in some cases, communities being isolated”.
Train travel in Scotland accounts for only a quarter of the passenger journeys made by bus although it has seen steady increases in passenger numbers over recent years..
Following bus deregulation in 1986, transport authorities put out all subsidised bus routes to competitive tender.
Gavin Thomson, transport campaigner at Friends of the Earth Scotland said that the picture of life after deregulation shows that privatisation has been a “disaster”.
“Bus travel, particularly in Glasgow and the west, is patchy and expensive. Routes and passengers are lost every year, pushing people into car use. This increases climate emissions and inequality.
“Areas in the UK – such as Edinburgh – which have retained public operators, or other forms of public control such as franchising, have cheaper, more reliable and more popular services. This means more bus travel, fewer cars on the road, lower emissions and less transport poverty.
“As we come out of this pandemic, the Scottish Government must help councils use new powers to start public bus operators, restoring lost routes, and connecting people with employment and education opportunities.”
The Jacobs and Aecom analysis, as part of a wider transport review, supported reallocation of roadspace for buses saying it was “critical” in curbing the decline in bus use to improve bus journey time reliability and operational efficiency.
It said a reduction of 10% in bus speeds was estimated to result in a loss of between 9.6% and 14% in passengers.
It said: “This can result in a ‘circle of decline’, with operators needing to increase fares and reduce mileage, which could increase congestion further.
“The need for action to support the viability of bus as a mode of transport has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the consultants said.
Analysis by KPMG indicated that of the 27m reduction in bus passengers between 2011/12 and 2015/16, some 18m was likely to be a result of increasing car ownership and rising bus journey times.
“This indicates a need to rebalance the attractiveness of travel by bus relative to travel by car if the net-zero target is to be met,” said the analysis.
Transport Scotland figures show that bus use by concessionary passengers fell to a low of around 12% of 2019 levels in the middle of the first lockdown last year.
While the number of passengers had recovered to around 50% by the first week of September 2020, it remained at this level throughout the rest of September, before starting to fall in October.
“It is likely that further action will need to be taken to improve the image of bus travel if the financial sustainability of the bus industry is to be improved. This is clearly an area where bus priority could assist,” the analysis said.
It said evidence has shown that a fully enforced bus lane on a six-mile highly congested bus route can cut travel times by 7 to 9 minutes.
The consultants said that action taken to provide bus priority can also result in consequent partnership investment by bus operators.
“Bus priority measures would increase the attractiveness of bus as a mode of transport, assisting with the recovery in bus patronage postCovid-19 and could also help to lock-in the benefits of lower levels of car use witnessed during the Covid-19 pandemic by presenting travel by bus as a viable alternative to travel by car,” the analysis said.
The Bus Partnership Fund (BPF) launched in November 2020 to provide funding for local authorities to invest in permanent infrastructure had the potential to support the delivery of a step change in journey time improvement whilst also leveraging investment from operators, it said.
But in the past two years there has been campaigns to save a series of routes that have been cut or threatened – including multiple bus routes in Glasgow , Fife and Stirling.
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 Human rights experts at New York University say that deregulation in Scotland and the UK has led to a “dysfunctional” public transport system which is falling apart.
Research by a team led by Philip Alston, a former UN special rapporteur, the privatisation of bus companies said passengers were experiencing poor reliability, disappearing routes, limited coverage and inadequate information.
In a response Transport Scotland said it recognised the key role bus services play in helping people realise their human rights.
It said free bus travel was being expanded to under-22s, similar to concession schemes for older and disabled people.
Asked if there is a minimum level of service residents are entitled to, Transport Scotland said: “There is no set minimum. It is for local transport authorities to determine what services are required by their communities and residents.
“Requirements will vary dependent on local circumstances, including local geography and the availability of alternative transport options.”
Paul White, director for the Confederation of Passenger Transport Scotland said the bus sector has and continues to face challenging circumstances that are unrelated to who owns or operates the service. “CPT agrees with FOE Scotland that increasing bus use and improving bus services is vital. We are engaging with Scottish Government to deliver real improvements by matching government investment in bus priority and accelerating decarbonisation.
“Prioritising sustainable and active travel is vital and we won’t lose focus by engaging in a debate on regulation that would rather blame bus companies than address growing congestion or car use.”
First Bus said that local authorities should have the capacity, skills and finance to effectively tackle congestion and keep the roads and pavements in good order.
Duncan Cameron, interim managing director for First Bus in Scotland said: “In the last two years, First Glasgow has brought £40 million of investment to the city in the form of new, greener, fully accessible vehicles. Over the next 18 months, First Glasgow will be investing £35 million on 148 electric vehicles, giving Glasgow the biggest electric fleet in the country and leading the way in sustainable travel in Scotland right ahead of the city hosting COP26. During this project, we will also deliver the UK’s largest EV charging hub at our flagship Glasgow Caledonia Depot.
“We are committed to providing a service that responds to our customers’ needs. Serving our communities is at the heart of our decision-making – not profit. Indeed, we continue to operate some routes within the communities that we serve in Scotland at a loss in order to maintain the integrity of our entire bus networks.”