HUNDREDS of bus routes face the axe and fares are set to be hiked as a Scottish Government fund worth an estimated £35 million a year is halted at the end of the month, experts are warning.

The end of the Covid recovery backing through meant that a bus services support budget for bus services has been cut by 37.1% from £99.4m to £62.5m.

But there are concerns that the end of the Network Support Grant coupled with soaring inflationary pressures including the rising cost of fuel, energy and wage costs will further exacerbate a decade of decline with many communities effectively cut off from the public transport network with cuts to the number of buses, service cuts and fare rises in Scotland.

It comes as it emerged that the number of public service buses in Scotland has already slumped by nearly 25% from 4800 ten years ago to 3,700 in 2020/21.

McGill’s Buses, one of Scotland's biggest independent bus companies, say they are now planning 13% cuts to services in Renfrewshire and Inverclyde and have predicted that they will not be alone and that 600-800 more buses will have to go across Scotland very soon.

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Concerns over the future of buses comes as the public are encouraged to ditch gas guzzling cars and use public transport to cut emissions and tackle climate change.

The bus service resuscitation was put in place to support bus services and protect fares while patronage continues to recover from the impacts of the pandemic.

It would also allow the running of routes that might not be otherwise commercially viable. But Department for Transport figures already show that the number of bus passenger journeys in Scotland in 2022 has not recovered from the pandemic - and are still 35.2% down.

Even before the pandemic, the number of passenger journeys on local bus services had dropped by 16% in 10 years to 363,000.

Initially introduced to help protect fares as the country recovered from the pandemic, the grant has been regularly extended The last u-turn over ending the mechanism to assist bus service recovery without replacement was in October, last year.

In June ministers confirmed additional funding of £25.7 million was being provided to extend recovery funding.

Transport minister Jenny Gilruth said at the time: “For our health, our climate and our communities, we will continue to support our bus industry and encourage the shift away from cars and towards sustainable public transport."

Public transport campaigners are pushing government to continue to support buses during a decade of decline.

Colin Howden, director of sustainable transport charity Transform Scotland, said: “This is a very worrying time for the prospects for Scotland’s bus services. The imminent end of the Covid support grants risks leading to major cuts to bus services and frequencies, and increased fares.

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“Given the reliance on buses of those on lowest incomes, the next few months could inflict serious harm on those already suffering from transport poverty. We’re particularly concerned about the impacts on bus services in rural areas, where many routes are already financially marginal, and where local authorities may not have the funds to ensure that bus routes are maintained.

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"Far too little national political attention is paid to bus services. We’ve seen precisely no attention given to this matter during the SNP leadership campaign, with the only transport focus being on demands for new road-building, which will disproportionately benefit richer households.

“The prospects for buses are only going to be turned around when action is taken to make bus services more attractive to commuters. progress in decarbonising the bus fleet, but there’s little prospect that the Government’s promise that half of the bus fleet be run on zero-carbon fuels by the end of this year will be met."

An analysis by McGill's suggests there could be 600-800 fewer buses very soon compared to pre-Covid levels.

McGill’s media and political adviser Jack Irvine said: "As the nation struggles to build a damaged economy it is vitally important that the working population has the means to travel. Add the challenges of the young getting to school and university and older people getting to medical appointments it is clear the Scottish Government needs to employ some serious joined up thinking to the problem.”

Ralph Roberts, chief executive of the McGill’s Group, said the financial support had aided delivery of local bus services since the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020.

He said that Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT), which was created by Transport Scotland and is part-funded by the Scottish Government and is responsible for planning and coordinating regional transport had the power to step in with financial support where journeys or services are considered to be socially necessary.


McGill's Ralph Roberts with James and Sandy Easdale 

He said that they have advised the SPT of the proposed changes they are already bringing forward "so they can weigh up potential replacement services".

He said: “Just as Covid was unprecedented, we understand that these service changes post-pandemic are unique. Whilst we fully recognise the extent of service changes, we have worked hard to try and adjust other McGill’s services to cover some or all of the cancelled service routes. This detail is important as we shape the most efficient bus provision for the region moving forward.”

He said that the grant funding to date had allowed more bus services to run than would otherwise be affordable.

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“The pandemic has resulted in changes to how, when and why people travel. More recently, the industry, like wider economy and the population at-large, has been hit by inflationary pressures - such as fuel, energy, materials and wage costs. It now costs us approximately 25% more to keep buses on the road than it did before Covid," he explained.

“On most services, the number of journeys being made is between 80-90% of pre-pandemic levels. But, given the increased costs, this means we need to make some changes to routes and timetables - both to reflect current demand, and to ensure the future viability of our networks across Renfrewshire and Inverclyde."

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “We’re clear that the support provided to transport operators needs to evolve to make sure it remains fit for purpose and is sustainable long term.

“The Network Support Grant plus was always a temporary fund; designed to provide additionality during Covid. All bus operators who agreed to take part in the scheme signed up on the proviso that it would be finally ending this March. A key agreement between bus operators and Transport Scotland has been the addition of extra funding to support a marketing campaign from Scottish Government, to encourage people back to bus.

“We provided £223m in emergency funding to support bus services during the pandemic.

“Scotland has the most generous concessionary scheme in the UK. More than a third of the population, over 2.3 million people, including everyone under 22 and over 60, and disabled people and carers, can benefit from free bus travel. Additionally, the Scottish Government is progressing the Fair Fares Review to ensure a sustainable and integrated approach to public transport fares that supports the long term viability of our public transport system as we recover from the pandemic.”