Lunchtime today something of a bombshell landed in East Lothian Council with First Edinburgh’s peremptory announcement that they were cutting one fifth of all their services as of August this year. More specifically, they are pulling out of East Lothian altogether, with the closure of both Musselburgh and North Berwick bus garages and the loss of some seventy local jobs.
Given less than three months to sort this out, ELC will be hard-pressed to ensure that replacement services of some sort are in place by then, including provision of transport of pupils to/from their various schools in time for the new term. On the other hand, this comes as little surprise to those in the know. Indeed, it is a repetition of the fast one they pulled back in Spring 2010 when they axed half their services in the County with even less notice.
Bus professionals and local anoraks are unsurprised for a variety of reasons:
- First in general has developed into a cheap-and-cheerful operation, more geared to profits than long-term customer satisfaction and value.
- Their cheesiness was evident in the ramshackle fleet they ran and the corresponding lack of reliability, as compared to other operators.
- Despite their letter claiming they had tried to expand ridership and make the lines profitable, in truth they had simply soaked East Lothian customers with ever-increasing fares; it costs more to bus across North Berwick than it does to cross Edinburgh.
- They deliberately set timetables to NOT connect with trains (run by First) to try to keep passengers on the bus and claimed the Monopolies Commission forced them to do so.
So poor were they at running the service and charging too much that they let upstart Berwick-based Perryman’s eat their lunch on what should have been a profitable Dunbar-Edinburgh service. Friendlier drivers on the more comfortable 253 got folk there faster and cheaper than the lumbering X6. What’s not to like?
On the other route that should have made money, they took over 90 minutes to make a North Berwick-Edinburgh journey that the train makes in 33 minutes in far more amenable surroundings for the same money. Add in that they stopped half the buses in Musselburgh and called the other half an express service when it palpably wasn’t makes you wonder if the management had a fiscal death wish.
So, concerned as I am that people reliant on their residual services should continue to have bus services and that seventy families may be hit by redundancy through no fault of their own, this may not be the regrettable tragedy implied in First Edinburgh’s letter. Given that other local services already provided by Lothian, Prentice and Eve are already first-class and show growing ridership, this turn of events may actually be an opportunity to bring all local services up to that high level. One scheme to do so might be:
- Work with Perryman’s to augment the existing 253 service to replace the X6 (express between Haddington and Edinburgh)
- Work with Lothian Country to augment their existing 104 and 113 services to compensate for the loss of the X8/106 slow services from Haddington
- Work with Lothian Country to replace the X24/124 with a slow service NB-Musselburgh (124) and a true NB-Edinburgh express via Longniddry, Pencaitland Road and A1.
- Combine 120 (NB-Dunbar) with 121 (NB-Haddington) to create an hourly through service that would provide an NB town service replacing the likely loss of the Church Road-Tesco leg of the 124 once the bus garage closes.
What would make such an arrangement particularly useful would be to develop both an Oyster-style card and easy inter-bus transfer by setting up proper transfer points with co-ordinated timetables (including rail). Some obvious candidates for such points are:
- Haddington High Street
- North Berwick station
- Longniddry Station
- Wallyford station
- Musselburgh High Street
Once the main transport ‘backbone’ of the NB/Dunbar rail service was linked by the key bus routes mentioned above, evaluation of other supported bus routes (111, 122, 128, etc) might re-jig them to simply feed into the above and thereby save some of their present tortuous (and therefore arduous) journeys.
If the East Lothian network actually worked as such, ridership in our growing county would rise. The resulting fare box receipts could then release funds to expand services in a virtuous cycle.
It will be up to ELC’s Transport Services to pull this together and Depute Leader Michael Veitch to take a lead in driving this towards a solution. Iain Gray MSP’s position is already up on Facebook and the pattern of positive co-operation required was already laid down in the successful co-operation of six years ago when First’s thrawn shortsightedness was turned into positive opportunity so Pencaitland, Ormiston and Haddington all found themselves with better services.