On Wednesday 09 June, like so many constituents, I was shocked to find out that Stagecoach planned to end the X34/X36 bus service to and from Glasgow from 17 July.
While many communities will be impacted, the most affected would be Beith, which has no railway station, although even in Dalry and Kilbirnie these are not handy for many.
I raised the matter with the First Minister on 10 June who confirmed that the SNP Government will continue to support our bus services.
After exchanging email correspondence with Stagecoach, Patricia Gibson MP and I met with Fiona Doherty, Managing Director, West Scotland and Sam Greer, Regional Director, both Stagecoach last Friday.
We raised the myriad concerns of constituents, from the difficulty in getting to work, hospital, leisure.
Ms Doherty and Mr Greer explained that the service has never been well patronised and, indeed, I met them in 2017 and 2019 when the service was also struggling to ensure it survived, then.
Now in 2022, post-pandemic, passenger numbers are down nearly 40% to 0.6 passengers per mile. Driver shortages are acute, with 12% vacancy rates and post-pandemic emergency funding coming to an end means that ‘to secure the network’ Stagecoach decided that the least used routes would be shelved. Strathclyde Partnership had been consulted but not passengers. When I spoke to him, North Ayrshire Council’s Chief Executive Craig Hatton had not been made aware of any consultation.
So, how to save the service? The local authority cannot step in; it has neither buses, drivers nor depots.
The SNP Government, facing a 5.2% cut in funding from Westminster this year nevertheless realised the importance of our bus services and increased the Concessionary Fares and Bus Services budget line from £321.8 million to $413.9 million – a 28.7% increase!
This is a bigger increase than any other budget line this year. However, the Network Support Grant element of that to support the (many) unprofitable bus routes is due to end on 20 July, prompting Stagecoach to end the X34/X36 service.
Yesterday I raised with my MSP colleague Finance Minister Tom Arthur and today Transport Minister Jenny Gilruth MSP and Deputy First Minister John Swinney MSP the continuation of the Network Support Grant with unused monies within the Concessionary Fares and Bus Services budget line for this year.
Money for concessionary fares is available due to lower uptake than anticipated post pandemic.
I am pleased to say that Network Support Grant will now be extended to 01 October.
I would hope by then passenger numbers will have risen considerably through young people using concession passes and older people having the confidence to return to travelling by bus in greater numbers.
Given this positive move I asked Ms Doherty and Mr Greer if the X34 and X36 services will now be retained.
I am pleased that Ms Doherty responded just moments to go to say that while the service remains unviable, they will now seek to retain a basic service and will provide details over the next few days.
However, it really now is a case of ‘lose it or use it!’