Proposed changes to Edinburgh bus routes aimed at better connecting one of the city’s most isolated communities will not lead to improved services the council has been told.
This comes after warnings that a “looming crisis” could leave some residents with no access to public transport over winter.
The council agreed to undertake a full review of its subsidised bus routes to address unreliable and infrequent provision in Ratho and other under-served areas after timetables were slashed due to driver shortages, forcing “stranded” locals to walk along “miles of country roads often in the dark late at night”.
However plans going before councillors this week have been criticised for being “rushed” and “not meeting needs of service users”.
Stacey O’Flaherty from Ratho Community Council, who has spent months lobbying the local authority for better buses, said she was disappointed to read the plans and warned the possibility of the current operator pulling out before new contracts are agreed has created a “crisis situation”.
Labour Transport Chief Scott Arthur said the council is “working with really tight budgets” adding the long-term goal was to “build a service from Ratho into the city up to a level where it is commercially viable and we don’t have to subsidise it”.
The new proposals, set out in a report to Thursday’s Transport and Environment Committee, include splitting the existing 20 route between Ratho and Chesser in two and offering village residents a new link to Hermiston Gait, where they can connect to onward bus and tram travel, as well as a new direct bus from Ratho to the city centre via the A8.
Ms O’Flaherty said while residents were desperate to have a bus going into the centre of town, it would only work if an existing route was extended to include Ratho. She said the idea for a standalone service was “complete and utter nonsense,” stressing it would not be “operationally or financially viable”.
She said: “We’re not suggesting putting additional buses on the road – we’re suggesting taking buses off and extending and being smarter about the services that are already in use.”
The amended local route between the Gyle and Hermiston Gait via Ratho would be “technically better than what we have now,” she said, but as an hourly service wouldn’t be “attractive enough for people to leave their cars at home”.
She added: “An hourly service that went direct is different, but an hourly service that requires you to get off and connect to another service just doesn’t make it attractive enough, so it’ll never become commercial.”
Addressing a council meeting earlier this year Ms O’Flaherty, who leads the community council’s bus working group, said in Ratho buses often don’t turn up until after 10am despite being timetabled to start three hours earlier, with services regularly delayed or cancelled leaving locals “stranded having to walk miles of country roads often in the dark late at night”.
She said: “It’s a non-existent service – it’s the biggest settlement in Edinburgh that doesn’t have a direct service going into the centre of Edinburgh. I think there’s a lack of understanding about the size and demographic of the village.”
Meanwhile Ratho bus users told the Local Democracy Reporting Service the existing service often didn’t turn up and was not nearly reliable enough to use it to get to work, education or medical appointments.
The council’s contract with McGills to run the city’s three supported services, the 20, 63 and 68, came to an end in September but the company agreed to keep buses running on the routes “until the tender process is complete and new contracts are awarded,” according to a council report.
However, Ms O’Flaherty said she was concerned about the ongoing agreement based on “goodwill” on the part of the operator which “may well lose patience and say enough is enough”. She added McGills’ decision to withdraw all its services from West Lothian from December meant there was now a “looming crisis” which could leave Ratho with no bus provision at all over winter.
She said: “As a result of the McGills’ withdrawal from West Lothian, it’s placed Edinburgh Council into a crisis situation on supported buses which is forcing them to put in place services that don’t meet the needs of service users because they’re rushing it through after not doing a full formal review as they were expected to.”
But Edinburgh Council’s Transport and Environment Convener Scott Arthur said he was “broadly confident” McGills would continue running buses into Ratho until new plans were in place.
He said: “I’ve met with the management team at McGills and they’re absolutely committed to supporting us as much as they can and I’m grateful for that given where we are with the contract renewal process. I would hope they continue to honour that agreement and see us through to the contract renewal.”
He added: “We’re grateful for the breadth and depth of engagement from [the community council] and our aspiration is to build a service from Ratho into the city up to a level where it is commercially viable and we don’t have to subsidise it. But in the interim we’re working with really tight budgets to try to deliver a supported bus service right across the city.
“What we are asking for though is in the build up to the budget next year that all the groups have as much information as possible about the cost of these services. So if they choose they can add extra funding for supported bus services in Edinburgh.”
The council has said it hopes to have new contracts for its supported bus services in place by early next year.
McGills was contacted for comment.
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