One of Scotland’s biggest bus companies has come under fire after an official inquiry found failings over keeping vehicles fit and serviceable.

McGill’s, the transport operator owned by former Rangers directors Sandy and James Easdale, has been at the centre of a probe by the Office of the Traffic Commissioner over concerns at how services are being run.

And it has emerged that transport managers James Easdale, Ralph Roberts and Colin Napier have all been formally warned after incidents which traffic commissioner Richard Turfitt has said: “tarnished the repute of the operator”.

Mr Turfitt warned the three that there “can be no repeat of the identified shortcomings and no recurring impact on the running of registered services”.

It highlighted an incident where one vehicle in-service lost a wheel. 

McGill’s, which is said to operate 600 vehicles, has received a £75,000 financial penalty over failures in buses turning up on time or at all. 

READ MORE: Hundreds of jobs to be lost as McGill enters administration

Mr Turfitt said that even on McGill’s own average of averages which refers to all monitoring by Bus Users Scotland over the two years, average punctuality was below 90%.

It comes after the Greenock-based public transport operator, which employs more than 800 staff across its headquarters and depots in Hamilton, Inchinnan and Johnstone, celebrated a pre-tax profit of £1.4m, despite an industry-wide slowdown.

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The traffic commissioner report publishes six pages of tweets of complaints between December 2018 and June this year, about buses either not turning up or being severely delayed – with many responses from McGill’s referencing “higher than normal technical issues”, which led to an official examination of the impact that maintenance issues might have had on operations.

Some 80 complaints about services were noted during one year – while the report said McGill’s tried to put that into the context of the number of journeys it operates. 

It is said almost 750,000 journeys are made on a McGill’s bus every week across over 100 routes.

One complainer tweeted in February this year that one service operated once during the whole week and questioned: “how a bus can break down every day”.

Another from June talks of three weeks of a Kilbarchan to Glasgow service failing to show up at Papermill while the report says McGill’s apologised and referred to a mechanical breakdown. “Not always possible to repair or swap the vehicle over,” the operator said.

The commissioner said he ordered the inquiry to consider whether he should “intervene in respect of this operator’s licence”.    

He said it was examining whether the operator had honoured undertakings under the Public Passenger Vehicles Act 1981 to keep vehicles fit and serviceable, and to have an effective written driver defect reporting system. He recorded an “adverse finding”.

READ MORE: McGill’s Buses' profit trebles despite ‘high street decline’ 

He was looking at whether vehicles or drivers had been issued with prohibition notices, which prevents a defective vehicle from being driven on the roads, by the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency or the police in the past five years, contrary to the Act.

It was discovered the operator received 38 notices over the last five years, with 21 in the last two, recording a “mixture of internal defects with more significant maintenance issues”.

In one incident on December 7, 2018, one vehicle lost a wheel in St Michael Street, Greenock, and became subject of a prohibition notice.

“Any wheel loss represents a real danger to the driver, passengers, other road users and, in particular, any pedestrians within the vicinity,” said Mr Turfitt.

“The operator’s response acknowledged the incident and that the nearside front hub flange had detached from the vehicle taking with it the nearside front wheel while the vehicle was in motion. The flange bolts had apparently worked loose and screwed themselves out of the hub assembly, leading to the wheel loss. “

An unannounced maintenance investigation was carried out by a vehicle examiner on January 28,  2019 “with compliance being assessed as completely satisfactory other than the hub" which was reported by McGills to the DVSA.

He looked into the causes of the wheel loss incident and confirmed that the front hub flange had become detached from a vehicle following an “unsatisfactory repair”.

Mr Turfitt said he had “some concerns” about the way Preventative Maintenance Inspections may have been carried out saying that a number of “driver detectable” defects were found to have been left to safety inspections.

A new engineering structure was presented at the inquiry which “appears to be an acceptance of previous weaknesses in driver defect reporting also”. 
McGill’s also referred to quarterly depot reviews to exercise oversight at a local level.

It is to undertake a Full Compliance Audit to be submitted to the Office of the Traffic Commissioner in Edinburgh by April 30, 2020. It is also to appoint two further Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) holders to be appointed as Transport Managers by the end of the year.

Mr Turfitt said none of the three transport managers was devoted solely to the tasks of a transport manager.

“My concern is the level of supervision which is evident from the events and findings to which I have referred,” said Mr Turfitt. 

He said he was satisfied McGill’s would comply to requirements in future, having brought in measures to meet concerns raised at the inquiry, including “added assurance” of independent checks by Lloyd Morgan, one of the country’s leading PCV/ HGV compliance firms.

“However, the incidents to which I have referred have tarnished the repute of the operator,” said Mr Turfitt. “The three named transport managers are formally warned accordingly: there can be no repeat of the identified shortcomings and no recurring impact on the running of registered services.”

In 2010, the operator was fined more than £60,000 by Joan Aitken, the then transport commissioner for Scotland, for failing to stick to the timetable on some of its routes.

“In that decision she refers to the unsatisfactory haste demonstrated when taking over lucrative routes so that the operator had no reasonable excuse for the established non-compliance,” said Mr Turfitt who added the operator was then “put on notice of the need to monitor and manage its punctuality”.

During one response in May 2019, Mr Roberts of McGill’s referred to the investment of £1 million in what is described as “state of the art scheduling and tracking equipment” with the intention of cutting down the delay caused by changing street conditions and the implementation of a solution. 

The report said he said heavy reliance was to be placed on real-time information, which gives live arrival countdowns via a  mobile app. 

He said: “We do not try to hide”.

Ralph Roberts, managing director of McGill’s Buses, said: “Following the review from the Traffic Commissioner, we accept the outcome of this process which was detailed and fair in its full judgment. 

"A number of parties, including passenger body Bus Users Scotland, the DVSA and the Traffic Commissioner, confirmed their trust in McGill’s as an operator and praised how we dealt with major disruption and how we kept customers informed and recognised our significant investment record.

“That said, we recognise that a number of our services have experienced issues with punctuality over the last 12 months and we will strive further to improve the situation in the months to come."

“Congestion and roadworks continue to be a major problem for all bus operators across Scotland and this has had an impact on passenger numbers which have dropped across the board over the past decade.

“However, even when our punctuality rate has dipped, we are still achieving performance which outstrips most UK rail companies – including the main rail operator in Scotland.

“As a bus operator, we need to factor in the problems we face on the road network and evolve our business accordingly. However, we also need help from local authorities to ensure the issues do not discourage investment in the vital services we provide.”

In its latest annual report, McGill’s admits the biggest uncertainty it faces is the “inability to predict journey times on certain routes due to congestion, road works and other unpredictable events on the roads infrastructure outwith our control”.

The report from Mr Roberts signed off in September bemoaned government policy at “national and local level”, which he said favoured the car and train with the bulk of infrastructure investment going to “those two modes”.

He said that “given the climate emergency now declared, local authorities need to focus on their published transport hierarchies and prioritise the bus over the car”.

He said: “Buses are the answer to congestion and poor air quality whereas the car is the cause of them.

“Buses deliver 74% of public transport journeys yet this mode receives peppercorn levels of infrastructure investment.

“Dialogue is ongoing with the government at a national level to release more funding for the bus user, but local government see this as a high-risk activity as it will bring voter backlash from car users.  Local politicians need to remember that bus users are also voters.”