ABUS pass is of no earthly use if there is no bus to catch.
That is the prospect facing many Scots who live slightly off the beaten track, following the latest unsatisfactory compromise over the Scottish Government's free travel scheme. Yesterday Transport Minister Keith Brown was trumpeting the additional £10m being invested in the industry. However, this goes only part of the way to compensating for the £24m a year cut in government funding being imposed over two years. The result is likely to be higher fares for those not covered by the scheme and cutbacks in services.
The Herald has long argued that free bus travel for everyone over 60 is not sustainable in the long term and that many of those who use it could afford to contribute towards the cost. This already exceeds the £187m a year funding available and the country's ageing population and other factors mean demand is sure to continue rising. Faced with this equation, the Scottish Government's response has been to cut the percentage of an adult single fare payable for each passenger carried free. This formula, intended to reflect the true cost of operating the scheme, is falling from 73.6% to 58.1%, even though operators' other costs (such as fuel and staff costs) continue to rise. Something has to give. Those living in country areas or on any route considered uneconomic will bear the brunt of this decision as well as fare-paying passengers.
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It may be very handy for well-heeled 60-year-olds to commute for free and very pleasant for groups of cheery pensioners to enjoy free day trips to Oban or Fort William but is it the best use of public funds in the current climate? It is not, especially if low-paid workers and those looking around for work are paying the price. And bus passes are a fat lot of use if the services pensioners rely on are cut. It would be fairer to raise the threshold to 65 or 70, in addition to the disabled and those on passported benefits.
It would appear that the Scottish Government would prefer to force difficult decisions on to bus companies, rather than take responsibility for steering the scheme on to a more sustainable course and one that would cause less harm to long-suffering paying passengers. This deal is the political equivalent of using a puncture repair kit when a change of wheel is what is required. How much longer can the wheels on the concessionary travel scheme continue to go round and round before there is a blow-out?