John McLellan: The threat to Lothian Buses' success

A bit like the NHS, Lothian Buses is the service everyone in Edinburgh professes to love. And a lot like the NHS, plenty of people only use it when absolutely necessary.

Thursday, 15th March 2018, 1:50 pm
Number 22 bus going through road works on Leith Walk Lothian bus tram works

The secret of Lothian Buses’ success has by common consent been built on a positive response to deregulation of the 1980s where the privatisation process was embraced to create a happy medium between public ownership and private enterprise. The Glasgow approach, to throw the whole bus network to the dogs, resulted in chaos on main routes, the collapse of reliability and the abandonment of uneconomic services.

You don’t have to be a transport professional to understand that people will use a fast and frequent service in modern, well-maintained vehicles, and the pristine new fleet on LB’s new East Coast Buses service for East Lothian has just recorded 31 per cent growth in the past year to help push company turnover up £9m to £157m.

But, pardon the cliché, LB is at a crossroads, not least because it will have to generate a £7m surplus to help fund the Leith tram completion on top of the dividend it pays to the council every year. As well as continuing to invest, it therefore needs to generate more than £10m clear profit for the next four years to meet the expectations of its majority shareholder.

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According to insiders, tackling congestion is the number one priority just to stand still and to meet the new demands it faces. A number of things will have to change and, while much of it is common sense, a lot could be unpopular.

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Firstly, they say all busways need to be in operation throughout the day, seven days a week, because the rush-hour is expanding, the roads are only quieter for three or four hours across lunchtime and weekends are as busy as weekdays, especially Sundays.

As internet shopping continues to grow so too is the number of small delivery vans on the roads throughout the day, up seven per cent between 2015 and 2016.

Then traffic wardens need to return to targeting obstructions as a priority, rather than concentrating effort on maximising parking ticket revenue. The council administration is unlikely to welcome losing revenue, but can it afford not to recruit more teams to remove obstructions and tackle the selfish plague of double parking, which will hit LB’s revenue and the council’s dividend?

The prospect of limiting trade delivery times in the city centre is growing because of the chaos resulting from delivery trucks and this could be high on the agenda for Sustrans deputy director Daisy Narayanan’s one-year stint as the Central Edinburgh Transformation project chief.

What would be popular is an overhaul of the roadworks system, or lack of it, where utility contractors continually abuse emergency permissions to carry out non-urgent work without prior notification. The big utilities will claim they behave responsibly, but it’s hard to disagree they pay little heed to the impact their work has on anything but their own interests.

Roadworks obviously hurt bus companies, and LB has seen a four per cent drop in passenger numbers on routes affected by the closure of Leith Street, so what will the impact be of the tram work the length of Leith Walk and beyond due to start later this year?

As currently planned, buses will be able to go up Leith Walk but not back down and no discussion has taken place so far about how the diversions will work. It will need to be good, because that dividend won’t generate itself. And let’s not forget the havoc wreaked on the fleet by potholes.

Titter ye not

Sir Ken Dodd’s death reminded me of a story told by the former editor of this paper, John McGurk, when he was a trainee reporter on a Lothian weekly. Out visiting a local minister for a story, he was offered a cup of tea and when the minister was in the kitchen John inspected the pictures on the mantelpiece. “Your pictures are very interesting,” he said on his return. “When did you meet Ken Dodd?” “That’s my wife,” came the reply.

Council has now lost two conveners in nine months

We don’t know what he’s done wrong, but it seems Cllr Gavin Barrie’s face didn’t fit as housing and economy convener and out he went just nine months into this council. Too much economy and not enough housing? Only the SNP knows. Two conveners down, and last May seems a distant memory.

Students need pub bands
I can’t say I go to many live music pubs these days, but there was a time when I did little else and even played (very badly) in most of the Glasgow venues, like the legendary Burns Howff on West Regent Street.

Pub gigging is where talent can be realised and the untalented like me can realise the truth, so it’s rarely positive when live music venues like the Leith Depot are under threat.

The Leith Walk bar is set to be replaced by a residential complex, which developer Drum says will include “innovative post-graduate student accommodation”.

Might that include, say, live entertainment?