Bus services in the Western Isles are starting to prepare for reviving a kind of timetabled service…albeit with restrictions and limitations imposed by the national rules on coronavirus controls.

Under lockdown, open access public bus services in the Western Isles were withdrawn to allow a focus on the provision of transport for key workers without access to their own means of transport.

During this period, all bus services users were identified key workers who are provided safe transport on a request basis and service timetables are provided on a bespoke basis for the needs of these passengers, says Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

This has allowed bus operators to control passenger numbers and keep physical distancing to acceptable levels.  The reduced number of runs has allowed bus drivers, who are also key workers, to operate shift patterns which have increased resilience.

The need to travel by bus for shopping was met by the development of support services from the Comhairle and community partners who are able to help with the delivery of food.  Food deliveries are available free of charge for those who are shielding.

The current phase 1 guidance for reducing the impact of lockdown allows for some easing of travel restrictions but still advises that travel distances are restricted to areas close to local communities.  As there has been a small increase in the number of businesses returning to work, requests for access to work transport has been extended where practicable to non-key workers. Initially, this is on the same basis as the bookable service provided for key workers and bus services still have limited coverage.

Phase 1 also suggests that preparation should be made to move on to Phase 2 which recommends that Public Transport services should move to operating increased services but with capacity significantly limited to allow for physical distancing.  Travel at peak times is still to be discouraged.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar says that, "prior to lockdown, public bus services in the Western Isles operated primarily on a ‘hail and ride’ basis.  Clearly, a return to this arrangement would not allow fair and safe management of physical distancing capacity restrictions.  It is therefore considered that the next step when moving to Phase 2, will be to allow increased access to public bus services while maintaining control of passenger numbers.  This would be achieved by extending the scope of the current booking system but also moving closer to a regular timetabled service.

"As there will be more passengers travelling on these services, passengers will be asked to wear face coverings when using public transport due to the increased risk of close contact when travelling on a bus.  Passengers will be expected to provide their own face coverings.

"Operators will be asked to display prominent signage on buses making it clear that physical distancing should be maintained and that face coverings should be worn.  Although face coverings are yet not required by law, it is being promoted as a precautionary measure for the health and safety of passengers and staff.

"Exceptions currently apply, such as young children or for those with health conditions for whom a face covering would be inappropriate.

"If there is a change to the guidance to make face coverings compulsory, passengers will only be permitted to travel on public transport if they are wearing appropriate face covering."