The current Islands bus services will be reduced in August, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar confirmed yesterday (Wednesday June 26th).
At a meeting of Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Members said they were committed to protecting front line transport services in partnership with the communities of the Western Isles.
Bus operators had been asked to tender for nine transport options, a number of which were left to them to redesign. The outcome of this process identified five options which were subject to a process of Community Conversation and online consultation.
Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members opted for option 4 whilst approving an increase in the Community Transport Fund in order to allow capacity for bespoke solutions for areas of particular need.
Option 4 states that: “Commuter services to and from Stornoway for both 8am and 9 am start times and 6pm departure will be maintained. Middle of the day services will be reduced. Reduced travel choice for middle of the day services to all districts particularly for Ness, Westside, North Lochs, Point and Tolsta. No evening services departing from Stornoway after 6pm for some areas.”
The council’s decision will see some areas such as North Lochs, Ness and Harris almost entirely retain their current service while the West Side, Uig and Bernera, Point and Back will all lose their current evening bus service provision.
Councillor Uisdean Robertson, Chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said: “The Comhairle has been listening to our communities over recent months and has chosen an option which we believe will best address the communities’ transport needs whilst also realising the necessary savings.
“Through the Community Transport Fund, we will continue working with communities to ensure bespoke solutions for those areas with greatest needs. Community Conversations will continue to ascertain the main priorities for services whilst meeting the financial targets the Comhairle has agreed.”
Earlier this year, in response to the Scottish Government’s budget, the council set out plans to reduce transport spending by 25% amounting to £1.658m of the current £4.429m annual budget.
During Tuesday’s consultation held at the Nicolson Institute several individuals raised the point that without adequate bus service provisions the only option, for many people, would be to travel by taxi. This would in some cases account for a substantial amount of their wage for the day. This was discussed as an inequality issue as it disadvantaged those in rural areas and could even lead to the loss of employment.
Speaking following the consultation Norman Macdonald, councillor for Sgire An Rubha said, “It is at present not an option to maintain the status quo and continue with the bus service in its current form. The council must make savings and that means that some services will be lost.”
“I would like to think that we would try and mitigate the impact of these changes to service on the working population by providing a service that takes them into work in the morning and home from work in the evening.”
“If we’re serious about sustaining a population here on the islands we need to provide a bus service that gets people to and from work, focused primarily around getting them to and from Stornoway.”
“I am well aware of the different shift patterns that people on the island have, we cannot limit people with a 6 o’clock curfew.
“Supermarket workers, hotel workers and those working in other industries that we are trying to support all work varying shifts, a lot of people in these jobs are not car owners and rely on the bus service. We need to meet the demand of the people we are here to represent and support so I’m fully in favour of maintaining an evening bus service.”
“We should be exploring all of the avenues available in retaining the evening service and certainly liaising with some of the contractors we have with in our communities, such as community councils who do run minibuses and possibly subcontracting services to them as well.”
Speaking on behalf of Point Community Council Matt Bruce echoed Councillor Macdonald’s concerns he said, “Up until now point has had a very good bus service but recently less and less people have being using it. As a result I can understand that if the council is being forced to make cuts this particular service is one that they have looked to address. What I would hope though is that the council would look to provide alternatives to this service for those who rely on it.”
“I would also like to acknowledge that other rural areas maybe hit even harder than Point. For people in these areas it is vital that an alternative to the evening bus service is provided, whether that is a subsidised taxi service or some form of community transport.”
As well as the discussion of those in employment Councillor Ranald Fraser raised the issue of transport links for tourists around the West Side Circular route.
Speaking on the importance of the bus service to the tourist industry, Victoria Harvey Development Officer at Calanais Visitor Centre said, “Transport links to attractions such as the Callanish Stones are crucial.
“The stones welcome 120,000 visitors each year many of whom travel by public transport. Some of our 20 staff members would also be unable to travel to work if not for the current bus service.”
“As more tourists visit and the island get busier we need a tourist friendly bus service that can cope with this. The current service isn’t fit for purpose and any reduction in this service is only going to make this worse.”
With the reduction of evening services the council is now looking for alternatives methods of providing this service. Councillor Paul Fagan said, “The community transport working group will now look to use the community transport fund to work with communities and help plug the gaps in evening services.”
Councillor Callum Maclean said, “The mentioned community transport fund consists of £230,000 that is to be distributed from Barra to the Butt. It is a wide distribution of £230,000 that will not go very far.”
Speaking at Tuesday night’s community consultation as well as community run bus services, the Comhairle's Director of Finance and Corporate Resources Robert Emmot suggested a further alternative to the evening bus services.
“One example of an alternative to the bus service would be car shares. A lot of young people already share cars as a means of travelling to and from work. Social media means that it is easy for people to ask friends, ‘can you give me a lift home?’”
Councillor Uisdean Robertson, Chairman of Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said after the decision: “The Comhairle has been listening to our communities over recent months and has chosen an option which we believe will best address the communities’ transport needs whilst also realising the necessary savings.
“Through the Community Transport Fund, we will continue working with communities to ensure bespoke solutions for those areas with greatest needs.
“Community Conversations will continue to ascertain the main priorities for services whilst meeting the financial targets the Comhairle has agreed.”
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar will soon issue a full summary of the Bus Service redesign. It is expected that the proposed changes will come into effect in mid-August.