Scottish Government cannot abandon Edinburgh in transport crisis – John McLellan

In the age of social distancing, Lothian’s 100-seater buses look a smart piece of business (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)In the age of social distancing, Lothian’s 100-seater buses look a smart piece of business (Picture: Lisa Ferguson)
In the age of social distancing, Lothian’s 100-seater buses look a smart piece of business (Picture: Lisa Ferguson) | Johnston Press
Edinburgh should not be left to muddle through with the tram extension on its own as lockdown devastates finances of transport network, writes John McLellan.

As a deserted three-axle Lothian Buses giant growled past my house, my first thought was to wonder what was the point of sending out those behemoths when so few people are travelling to work.

And not so long ago, the wisdom of buying the 42-strong fleet of 100-seaters was being questioned because of the difficulties involved in negotiating narrow streets and the damage their greater weight was doing to the tarmac. Lothian Buses then chief executive Richard Hall was robust in their defence, insisting the greater numbers at peak times more than compensated for the quieter periods.

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But now with social distancing likely to remain in place on public transport for months to come, they look like the most far-sighted investment any bus company could have made and the question is not so much how many more can the city’s streets handle but how many more can they buy.

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The problem, of course, is that as Lothian Buses comes to terms with the financial havoc ten weeks of lockdown without passengers has wreaked, it isn’t going to be buying anything any time soon. A report to today’s Edinburgh Council policy & sustainability committee spells out the impact, with the council accepting it will not receive the £6m dividend for which it had budgeted this year and neither can the tram completion project expect the £7m it needed.

The summer is already being written off and the chances of services returning to pre-crisis levels this year must be slim to non-existent. With the council now staring down the barrel of a £56m budget shortfall, the only alternatives are a Scottish Government bail-out or the company’s collapse.

As no-one would argue that the latter is an option it falls to the Scottish Government and in confirming this week that talks are under way, Transport Secretary Michael Matheson didn’t have much choice but to enter detailed discussions with councils and major transport operators about what needs to be done.

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The UK Government is now paying a £1.1bn grant to Transport for London and also making loans of £500m available now and a further £300m in October, but this only helps cover operational losses and some concessionary travel on buses and the Underground is still suspended while the congestion charge is being increased by a whopping 30 per cent.

While London Mayor Sadiq Khan described the £1.6bn package as a “sticking plaster”, Transport for Edinburgh is still standing in the socially-distanced queue at the chemist and while more than a few people will have bought a bike, if the local economy is to get back on its feet without a mass return to cars then Lothian Buses is going to need an equally hefty injection of cash to get enough buses on to the roads to move people about a peak times.

With the easing of lockdown starting today, Mr Matheson’s discussions need to turn to actions very soon, but what needs to be done is not just a matter of how operators survive the crisis, but how the entire regional network is organised in future. Amidst all the talk of the crisis being an opportunity to build a society and economy we want and not just return to the old way of doing things there is no better example than transport in South-East Scotland.

The crisis will intensify, not dilute, Edinburgh’s importance to the overall Scottish economy and understanding of the new labour market will go hand in glove with effective transport planning for the future.

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This is not something which can be left to Edinburgh alone and the piecemeal approach to transport planning in the past suggests the main vehicle for co-operation, Sestrans, is in need of a shake-up.

But the need for stronger Scottish Government intervention, in both policy and finance terms, is not something crystallised by the crisis but has been obvious for years, as Edinburgh has wrestled with the problems of mass transport in a booming city with tight historic streets.

Now saddled with more capital cost bound by contracts, for better or worse Edinburgh can’t be left to muddle through with something as complex as laying a new tram line through mediaeval streets when the financial plan and passenger projections are in tatters.

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