By Bill Heaney
Tory Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con), left, asked the SNP-Green government how it plans to revive the bus industry following a slump in passenger numbers during the Covid-19 pandemic.
It is clear there are no easy answers that don’t come with a prohibitive price ticket.
The Minister for Transport , Jenny Gilruth, told him: “We are investing in the bus network to support long-term growth by providing more than £2.1 billion for bus travel over the rest of this parliamentary session.
“We have extended free bus travel to children and young people under 22, and around half of Scotland’s population is now eligible to travel anywhere in Scotland by bus free of charge.
“More people are travelling by bus since the pandemic, and I hope to see passenger numbers increase further. The sector currently faces a range of challenges, and, later today, I will convene the first meeting of the industry task force to explore those issues and work together to find solutions.”
Graham Simpsonm however, was not content with the Minister’s answer. He told her: “I asked the minister last week about the network support grant plus, which is due to end on 9 October. The minister has just three days left to save the bus industry. If she does not extend that grant, more than 200 jobs could go, 50 routes across Scotland could be cancelled entirely and, in some areas, there could be a cut in services of more than a third.
“The Confederation of Passenger Transport Scotland estimates that it will cost £44.8 million to extend the grant for six months, and its modelling shows a potential underspend of £79 million for the concessionary travel scheme and of £84.5 million for the under-22s scheme.
“The bus industry is teetering on the edge and, as I have just demonstrated, the Scottish Government has the money, so when will it act?”
Jenny Gilruth told him: “I am looking urgently at a range of options to provide further support to the bus industry. However, I must remind Mr Simpson of the level of support that we provide to the industry in Scotland, which is significantly greater than the support in other parts of the United Kingdom.
“For example, we budgeted £93.5 million from April this year to support the bus network as we recover from the pandemic. Up to £20.5 million of net additional funding is already being provided to extend recovery funding to October, which is in addition to around £210 million that was provided during the pandemic. We have also provided additionality, with the £25 million of funding in relation to bus priority measures, which delivers funding to 28 local authorities in Scotland.”
Like most MSPs, Ms Gilruth, above right, does not appear to realise that the electorate have no idea what these astronomical figures actually mean.
She told MSPs that Mr Simpson did not identify some of the labour shortage issues that the sector is currently facing in relation to Brexit, nor did he identify any of the fuel cost charges that are really hampering some operators, whom she would be meeting later in the day.
Labour MSP Neil Bibby (West Scotland) (Lab) suggested: “To get more people on to public transport, we need to make it more affordable. Does the Scottish Government support fare capping and price regulation in the bus market, and will it make fare caps a condition of any future support for the bus industry?”
Surprisingly, Jenny Gilruth told him: “That is a fair question. There is the network support grant, and we are also capping fare rises in line with the latest monthly consumer price index figure, although we know that we need to do more. I recognise some of the challenges, which is why we are conducting a fair fares review to look at the affordability of public transport across the piece.
In many areas across the country, fares are already below £2. In Edinburgh, people can travel anywhere in the city for a flat fare of £1.80. I cannot give a direct answer to Mr Bibby’s question today, because we are looking at a range of options in relation to any additionality that the Scottish Government might be able to provide. However, I am more than happy to write to Mr Bibby with more detail on his specific point about fair capping.”