Action approved to help commercial bus service changes
McGill's Eastern Scottish have submitted registrations to the Office of the Traffic Commissioner which seek to amend their commercial local bus network within West Lothian.
These changes will see the largest commercial network change by an operator in a number of years and will impact journey options for passengers. 80% of bus services in West Lothian are commercial services, and West Lothian Council have no influence or authority over their commercial operation. The Transport Act 1985 deregulated bus services in the UK, moving from council-run buses to an open commercial market.
The changes will also affect subsidised contracts held by McGill's and will come into effect from Monday 8 May.
McGill's network changes are in direct response to the ongoing challenges being experienced across the bus industry in Scotland. Some commercial bus operators have made recent changes to their registered services citing multiple reasons for the need for changes.
These reasons include:
- continued challenges with a shortage of drivers available in the industry
- the increased cost in running services; passenger numbers not yet recovering to pre-pandemic levels
- the ending of Scottish Government funding for the COVID-19 Support Grant, which ceased on 31 March 2023
The revised network will largely result in a reduction in very early morning services, evening services and Sunday service removal. The changes will also result in a small number of areas (Blackridge and Greenrigg) no longer having access to any bus services.
The commercial network change will also impact on the relatively small number of council subsidised contracts held by McGill's. The council uses limited funding to support around 20% of local bus services, to fill gaps in the commercial bus network.
In an effort to try and mitigate the impact of the McGill changes, officers from the council's Passenger Transport team have carried out an appraisal of the limited options available. These options were presented at the Council Executive this week (Tuesday 25 April).
As driver issues are not unique to McGill's, officers have liaised with other external bus providers to understand their availability to respond to gaps in the early morning, evening and Sunday services. This engagement work has confirmed that there are not currently sufficient resources within the commercial bus industry to respond to the gaps that will be left by McGill's changes - even if commercial services were publicly funded (which they are not).
Council officers have therefore advised that it is not possible to provide replacement contracts within the immediate short term and that an immediate review and tender exercise needs to take place to try to realign the subsidised and remaining commercial bus networks. Due to the procurement process required to implement these contracts, it is expected that these contracts and services will be in place by October 2023.
Due to the reduction in the number of subsided services that McGill's provides, the council has agreed that subsidised funding, that would have been used for these services, is spent on bus services that provide a transport option for people that would otherwise have no travel choices at all - specifically within the Blackridge and Greenrigg areas.
Council officers have considered contract options which would reinstate a service for these areas. The Council Executive has agreed to award a subsidised contract LBS 10 to McGill's Eastern Scottish to extend the 21 service to provide a connection between Blackridge and Bathgate via Armadale. The Council Executive has also agreed a contribution to Strathclyde Partnership for Transport to reinstate a bus service linking Whitburn with the Shotts area, which will provide a connection for residents in Greenrigg.
The council is also exploring the use of developer funding to re-establish any lost connection from Winchburgh to areas such as Livingston. A tender exercise is underway and an update will be brought back to Council Executive next month. This is necessary as the 600 service will be cancelled following McGill's network change. The change removes the 600 service from Winchburgh. The area will retain the X38, however passengers would require multiple bus changes to access services within the wider West Lothian area.
The Council Executive also agreed that the council's Chief Executive writes to Kevin Stewart MSP, the Scottish Government's Minister for Transport to ask him to reinstate the COVID recovery support for buses and expiates the Fair Fares review.
Executive councillor for the environment and sustainability Tom Conn said:
"The situation is very difficult for everyone, and this is not an issue that is limited to West Lothian. McGill's network changes are in direct response to the ongoing challenges being experienced across Scotland's commercial bus industry.
"I am pleased that our team are looking at finding a solution within existing financial resources to address the issues being felt by residents in the Greenrigg and Blackridge areas. The council's strategy is to prioritise the limited funding that we do have for people that would otherwise have no travel choices. The council will also work to ensure that new contracts are progressed to ensure that the subsides public funding is amended to reflect the new commercial routes effectively."
"We will do what we can to alter our subsidised routes to better meet the revisions within the commercial routes, but that cannot not solve all the issues. McGill's changes come at a time when the council is facing significant financial pressures due to a budget gap of over £39 million over the next five years. It would be unrealistic to suggest that the council could use public money to fund direct replacements for the cancelled commercial services.
"The work carried out by our team also confirms that even if additional funding were available, which it is not, there is simply not enough drivers to solve the issues being experienced within the commercial bus market overall.
"The council receives no Scottish Government funding to provide a local bus service. However, the council does use its own limited funding to support around 20% of local bus services, to fill the gaps in the commercial bus network as best it can. Despite huge budget pressures, the council will continue to protect this funding and has not cut any bus services or funding to support bus services.
"It is clear that commercial operators simply cannot make some of their routes financially viable with current patronage numbers as they are."