A STATE-RUN bus service is to be set up to plug gaping holes in the Lothian travel network, amid huge cutbacks to operations at First Scotland East.
Transport Minister Keith Brown has held crisis talks with council chiefs from East Lothian who are considering setting up their own travel firm to run underperforming bus links to rural towns and villages likely to be abandoned in the First Bus withdrawal.
Yesterday’s news that First Bus was set to axe up to 200 jobs and close its Dalkeith depot while scaling down its Musselburgh base sparked a wave of protest from communities left without any access to public transport.
First Scotland East blamed a “challenging” economic climate, high fuel prices and cuts in funding for reductions.
The new trading company, to be called East Lothian Transport, would seek to shore up bus links for the threatened routes which currently cater for 95,000 passenger journeys a week.
It is understood Scottish Government help has been offered to establish the firm, which would be maintained through fare revenue, surplus council subsidies from the scrapped First Bus routes and, potentially, a Bus Operators’ Service Grant from Holyrood.
Communities in Midlothian may also benefit from the council-run bus service, but discussions between local authorities have not yet take place.
A summit to discuss the radical proposal is expected, involving representatives from Lothian Buses, First Scotland East and the Scottish Government, as well as councillors from East Lothian and Midlothian.
Councillor Paul McLennan, the East Lothian Council leader, said he was determined to “protect and support” communities and maintain vital transport links.
He said: “We will look to establish a council trading company called East Lothian Transport that will provide bus transport on routes deemed non-commercial to link up our villages and towns with train and commercial bus routes.
“We should also make clear that we wish to enter into negotiations with First Bus to look at the potential of bus drivers at risk of redundancy being offered employment by the new ELT company.”
Alex Macaulay, director of South East Scotland Transport Partnership – a voluntary body that seeks to improve travel links in the region – said he could not remember seeing “anything as severe” as the First Bus contraction but added that the rescue package was an “interesting concept”.
“There are operational risks to the local authority but there may also be operational benefits,” he said.
“If East Lothian is starting up a public transport company it would need to be arms length to operate as a commercial enterprise like Lothian Buses.”
Meanwhile, Lothian Buses is understood to be examining “potential opportunities” to strengthen its grip on the bus network. Cllr Gordon Mackenzie, transport convener at the City Chambers, said the council may consider clearing a path for Lothian Buses to make service changes to its routes and timetable to take up the slack provided, if it was “of benefit to Edinburgh residents”.
It emerged today that seven communities would be marooned in the wake of downsizing by First Bus operations, including Ormiston, Pencaitland, Whitecraig and Elphinstone in East Lothian, and Cousland, Millerhill and Newton Village in Midlothian.