A recent tweet complained that a passenger boarding a Lothian bus did not have his (valid) Ridacard accepted, was thrown off and had to taxi in to work. I’m sure this was a rare exception but it highlights a certain autocratic confusion at Lothian Buses as to why they are there. They trumpet their citations—Bus Company of the Year in 2002; Top City Bus Operator in 2011 and their website duly pays requisite homage to the customer:
“At Lothian Buses, our customers are at the heart of everything we do. From continual investment in our modern, comfortable fleet to using the latest technology to deliver up-to-date and accurate information about our services, we are committed to providing our customers with the very best in comfortable, easily accessible and affordable public transport.”
Shimply shplendid shtuff; but what is the reality? To be fair, for the last five years, they have not had their operational troubles to seek, with sundry primary arteries repeatedly torn up for the infamous tram works. And, having spoken with senior officials at Lothian, none are too chuffed with having tram operations hung round their neck. That said, how good are they at running public transport?
As a company running buses, they are indeed very good. First provides a splendid foil for them. After years in the nineties when the two companies fought bus wars all across Edinburgh, it has died down to the ongoing skirmish that is the 44 Wallyford/Balerno route, with Lothian the unquestioned victor. First is a much more low-budget operation that now confines itself to predatory pricing, mostly with clapped-out buses largely outside Edinburgh.
Within the city, Lothian runs the show, with over 90% of intra-city passengers and First slavishly copying its pricing just to stay in business. Looking at their route map, Lothian do provide a pretty comprehensive service that encompasses most urban outliers like Penicuik or Tranent, as well as all areas of the city.
So that’s it then, Edinburgh’s award-winning bus company takes you anywhere you’d want making the city a paragon of public transport? Bzzzzt: wrong! It’s a actually a dinosaur.
Born out of Edinburgh Corporation Transport’s monopoly pre-bus deregulation, Lothian remains publicly owned, shared by the former authorities that comprised Lothian Region (Edinburgh has 91% and the three Lothians 3% each). Which means it’s a quango, so loved by Labour and therefore stuffed with its acolytes from inception. No other European city of Edinburgh’s size and economic vibrancy is either so poorly served by bus alternatives or so car-hostile (let alone both), which gives Lothian’s virtual monopoly a thick edge over comparable bus operators elsewhere.
Let’s leave aside the money that the Blue Meanies make for themselves and for ECC and focus on three classes of non-car = bus customers: 1) the Edinburgh local; 2) the visiting Scot and; 3) the visiting ‘foreigner’ (in which group I include the English, not through any value judgement but for the sake of simplicity).
- Edinburgh locals. Most of those who ride regularly buy a Ridacard (weekly @ £17, monthly @ £51 or annual @ £612). Slapping that on the reader beside the driver gets them on quickly. Their main gripe is that buses don’t take them in one trip and they must wait in the rain and cold for transfers. A secondary gripe is that these are not much of a deal—ten single trips to/from work (if that’s all you do) is only £14 p.w.
- Visiting Scots. If you’re a pensioner with a Scottish Concession Card, it’s as easy as the native, with the same transfer drawbacks. However, the system presumes you already know how to use it. Route maps are rare even in bus shelters so you need to know which bus goes where. Then the centre of Edinburgh is a maze of bus stops (even before any tram works—see below). Finding the right stop is hard because (unlike London) there are no helpful maps of surrounding bus stop locations. This is made worse by a propensity to scatter them. Getting off a train in Waverley, it’s half a kilometre walk to catch a 10/11/16 past Tollcross because the stop is at the Mound. Those with no card have to fork out £1.40 to go any distance and do that again if they transfer. A Day Ticket is available, but at £3.50, it’s no bargain until you make a total of four journeys or more that day.
- Visiting foreigners should simply not bother. Over 90% of them arrive at Waverley where you’d be forgiven for thinking that both Visitor Information Centre and local transport were state secrets for all the information available. Network Rail spent millions refurbishing the station but shitepence on telling passengers how to continue their journey or where to visit/stay. Cabbies love it because most give up baffled or balk at the uphill slog to find an exit. (the helpful new Waverley Steps escalators are long overdue but good luck finding them) Even if visitors do make it out into daylight, the maze of bus stops and queues of buses dissuade most. And when the most determined/resourceful do find the right stop and bus, they must find exactly £1.40 in coins or get “ah’m sorry, pal, we dinnae tak’ ony notes” from the driver.
Seen as a self-serving monopoly where locals have no choice, Lothian is brilliant. And, to be fair to them, they do invest in their buses, which are consistently new, clean, well maintained and punctual (tram works permitting). Seen from a bus anorak’s perspective, it’s a faultless operation with well equipped depots at Seafield, Shrub Hill, Longstone, etc.
But, because they refuse to use conductors, they are often held up at stops while someone struggles for change; because they favour double-deckers, they refuse to run lighter load routes, which means almost all lines converge on the city centre to sit in endless queues; because rail provision in the city is so poor, the idea of joined-up transport with rail is entirely alien to them.
Apparently, they’ve never been to the Continent to see how public transport should work. Given the lack of competition, you could say that the world is their oyster but apparently they’ve never been to London to see how that works there either.