Higher bus fares expected as grant runs out

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BUS passengers in Edinburgh face the threat of another 10p fare rise next year to make up for a shortfall in funding for concessionary travel.

Bus chiefs say the amount of money set aside by the Scottish Government to pay for free travel for the elderly has been more than used up for this financial year and the budget looks set to be broken in each of the next three years.

The cash gap comes on top of soaring fuel prices and the cut in the Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG), which was blamed for the 10p fare rise brought in by Lothian Buses earlier this month.

A capped budget of £180 million was set by the Government to fund concessionary travel for 2011-12, but it is estimated that by the end of the financial year next week, the total number of concessionary journeys throughout Scotland will mean bus companies should have been paid up to £189m – a shortfall of £9m.

Ian Craig, managing director of Lothian Buses said: “This is a very serious issue that follows on from the Scottish Government’s decision to cut the BSOG which has already increased fares and caused levels of service to be reduced. Scottish bus operators require to be fairly reimbursed for carrying concessionary passengers free of charge.

“I have very grave concerns that a difficult situation now is about to become a whole lot more serious in less than 12 months’ time unless ministers act responsibly to protect vital bus networks and services that many communities rely on.”

An industry insider calculated Lothian Buses’ share of the £9m shortfall at around £2m and said that could translate into a five per cent fare rise, or 7p on the £1.40 adult single ticket which, taking into account the grant cut and rising fuel prices, would likely mean an increase of 10p or more.

Lothians Labour MSP Sarah Boyack said: “It is commendable that Lothian Buses have made efforts to keep increases to a minimum but their hands have been tied by the Scottish Government’s approach.

“Obviously the fear is they are going to be putting fares up again next year or making more swingeing cuts in services.”

The national budget for concessionary fares will increase next year to £187m and will be pegged at that level for the two following years.

Paul White of the Confederation of Passenger Transport, which represents bus operators, said: “It could end up that people who qualify for the concessionary fares have a fantastic scheme in theory, but very few buses to travel on.”

A spokeswoman for Transport Scotland said the Scottish Government was “absolutely committed” to concessionary travel for older and disabled people.

She said: “The main reason for bus companies putting prices up is rising fuel costs and we would urge the UK Government to take action on fuel prices.

End of the road

THE Scottish Government’s concessionary fares scheme gives free bus travel to anyone over 60 and many disabled people.

Bus firms can claim 67p in the pound for every concessionary journey. The money is paid in 13 four-week periods, but the Government sets an annual cap.

Bus operators say the cap means this year’s budget will already have been used up and companies will effectively be carrying passengers for free for the last few weeks of the year.