The First Shall Be Last

Last week, the Edinburgh Evening News broke the story that FirstBus (Scotland East) was going to withdraw roughly half the service it currently runs in East and Mid-lothian. Having worked with First through EL Council and seen the thick end of £1/2m disappear into its coffers for local supported bus services, not to mention compensation payments for carrying the elderly and running home-to-school transport, might you hope for a “heads-up” warning from one partner to another? Not a bit of it.

A letter to the council, dated April 2nd announcing the fait accompli, was not presaged by either negotiation or information and actually arrived the day after the EE News scoop. It made no mention of the four years still to run on the deal struck between ELC and First for supported bus services. Although unsaid, this was a unilateral reneging on a contract.  First’s MD Paul Thomas explained the situation thus:

“Despite the implementation of a number of marketing and pricing initiatives, this decision has been reached because a number of years’ poor trading performance, economic climate, fuel costs and cuts in external funding…it is no longer possible to fund these services from other parts of the business.”

Oh, really? Twenty years as a customer of their services taught me there are few more organisations single-mindedly dedicated to short-term profit than First’s Edinburgh operation. They charge eye-watering prices where they have no competition; they are especially fly at screwing extra money out of supported services. And they do this with a fleet of cast-off, antiquated gas-guzzling buses that make mockery of public transport as any green alternative to chelsea tractors.

In all, they provide an unenviable example of how bus deregulation does real damage to public transport and public attitude towards it. The profit motive is all very well but for First Group’s latest 6-month report to boast profits of £3.2 bn (= 10% of the Scottish Government’s entire budget), it’s a bit rich to plead poverty. Now that they’ve failed to squeeze enough out of this one sector by losing a bus war with Lothian, despite elbowing most smaller operators off their patch, they throw in the towel with scant 60 days notice.

But, easy though it is to catalogue First’s copious shortcomings, it is actually a chance to light a candle rather than curse their darkness. It will be a scramble to re-provide their existing services by June. But meetings with other bus companies, the Scottish Government, SESTRANS and Midlothian (who are also affected) are underway and sounding positive.

But this is also an opportunity to re-think how ELC provides transport across the county. This can be broken into four:

  1. Commuter traffic, mainly radial into central Edinburgh
  2. Local traffic, providing access to town centres from suburbs and villages
  3. School traffic, feeding pupils from across a catchment area, plus outings
  4. Social support traffic, such as Day Centres/Lunch Clubs and outings

Category 1 includes train services into town from Dunbar and North Berwick; buses here are best run as express services. Category 2 should (but does not) provide ‘feeder’ services to stations and avoid running buses that duplicate rail services. By making a few, reasonable assumptions, it should be possible to prototype a far better and easier to use system in East Lothian that could be a model for the rest of Scotland. The assumptions are:

  • Lothian provides the ‘local’ services to/from Tranent/Port Seton & Edinburgh
  • Some agreement on use of their Ridacard elsewhere in EL needs to be reached.
  • All buses accept an ‘Oyster-type’ swipe card to ease transfer and speed boarding
  • Buses in the (non-Lothian) Eastern area are mutually timed to meet at Interchanges

Given, this, a more frequent and streamlined service could integrate with both Lothian and ScotRail services so that people would find real encouragement to use public transport—as across Europe. The difference? To look like Europe, it should be integrated, fast and competitive in price. Why? Because as ridership rises, public subsidies fall, service improves and everyone’s happy. A post-First network might consist of:

    1. X24 N. Berwick to City Centre (via Gullane, Longniddry, A1/ASDA)
    2. X45/253 Dunbar to City Centre (via E. Linton, Haddington, A1/ASDA)
    3. E20 (ex-120) E. Linton to Gifford (via Tantallon, N. Berwick, Dirleton, Drem, MoF, Flag Heritage Centre, Athelstaneford, Haddington)
    4. E23 (ex-123/44C) Haddington to QMU (via Pencaitland, Ormiston, Tranent, Wallyford, Musselburgh; return via A1/A68, Whitecraig, Wallyford)
    5. E28 (ex-128) Haddington to QMU (via Ballencreiff, Longniddry, Port Seton, Prestonpans, Wallyford, Whitecraig, A68/A1; return via Musselburgh, Wallyford)
    6. E44 (ex-44D Haddington to ERI (via Gladsmuir, Macmerry, Tranent, Wallyford, A1/A720/A7)
    7. E10 (ex-110) Elphinstone to Port Seton (via Tranent, ScotRail & Alder Road)

Timing services C through F above to have Interchanges with each other and with B at Haddington and ScotRail at Wallyford, you could get to/from central Edinburgh, ERI and QMU far faster than now to/from any village or town in the county. Evening, weekend and seasonal tourist services would be modifications of this basic service.

Services A and B may remain commercial, as will western local services run by Lothian (15, 26, 30, 44). To add services C through G as hourly would only take nine buses; ELC already support six (110; 120; 121; 123; 128; 141/142). If these were scheduled to run as:

  • First trip circa 7am as commuter trip
  • Second trip circa 8am as school trip
  • Core trips (9am – 3pm) as standard trips
  • Tenth trip circa 4pm as school trip
  • 11th trip circa 5am as commuter trip
  • Final trip circa 6pm as standard trip

…then they would save at least three other buses currently used exclusively for school trips and the net cost for a far better service should be no more than it is now.

As for fares, currently, First’s prices outside the area served by Lothian average three times what they charge in Edinburgh and attract much negative comment and reluctance by the public to use the services. It would remain cheaper to buy day tickets than a normal return—or invest in a Ridacard.

Assuming that all services outside of Lothian’s area were run by an ‘arm’s length’ East Lothian Transport company with Oyster-style swipe payment of at least £1 per journey, it should be possible to increase ridership to the point that financial subsidy of bus services could actually be decreased. Even charging £2 per trip is appreciably cheaper than now.

Suggested East Lothian Transport Network (maroon colour = Lothian)

Red dots on the map indicate main Interchanges. Buses would arrive/depart from Haddington grouped around 10 minutes past each hour and from Wallyford around 50 minutes past each hour. While most journeys would involve a transfer, this would be compensated for by easy swipe-card boarding, minimum wait time and hourly service on all routes. Full co-ordination of interchange and ticketing with rail would take extensive negotiation and require a longer time scale.

Whether First wishes to be a part of this is unknown. Certainly other bus companies have expressed an interest in expanding/improving services and both the Scottish Government and SESTRANS have expressed support for such a scheme. Final details will only be know once ongoing negotiations have been completed. But First’s failure could actually be the best thing that’s happened to public transport in East Lothian (and maybe even Scotland).

About davidsberry

Local ex-councillor, tour guide and database designer. Keen on wildlife, history, boats and music. Retired in 2017.
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