The leader of Scottish Borders Council made a plea last week, asking neighbouring councils to help pay for the numbers 51, 101 and 102 buses. The 51 runs from Galashiels to Edinburgh, the other two between Edinburgh and Dumfries.

At the moment the council pays over £400,000 to maintain these services, while Edinburgh and Midlothian pay less than a quarter of that between them. Reasonably enough, he says that while there’s better infrastructure and footfall within those areas, allowing councils to recoup their outlay, that is not the case in the Borders.

If this sounds like a minor story, a reason quickly to turn the page, think again. This might not be a route you ever use (the scenery is lovely, by the way, once you’re out of the city), but what happens to it, and how it is funded, matters. As is the case with every single bus route in Scotland.

I don’t know how many Herald readers are regular bus users, but as the climate crisis bites, and we are obliged to leave the car by the kerb as often as possible, all of us will need to take buses much more seriously than at present.

As the nation’s main form of public transport, you could say that the Scottish bus network is to the body politick what arteries are to each of us. At the moment the system is struggling, the number of passengers and bus operators declining fast. Added to which, the Scottish government’s budget for supporting bus services has been almost cut in half recently, from 99.41m in 2022-23 to 55.5m in 2024-25.

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Unless they overturn on ice or are attacked by vandals, however, buses rarely make headlines. They are the Cinderella of the highways, belittled, underfunded, unloved. All the attention goes, instead, to trains. The reason for that, a friend suggests, is that policy makers travel by train. He might well be right, because you certainly don’t see many MSPs arriving at Holyrood off the No. 35.

Thanks to Maggie Thatcher, the stigma of taking a bus has lingered decades after she made her possibly apocryphal remark that, after the age of 30, it is a sign of failure. The legacy of that poisonous notion, which was stamped on the nation’s psyche in the 1980s, remains with many of us.

Where I live in the Borders, a limited weekday service runs through the village. In the six years I’ve been here, it has gone from a few passengers a day, to more than 200 a week. It was recently upgraded to a brand new vehicle which races around the district, its drivers treating passengers as if they had just stepped aboard their private limo.

Neighbours, who previously would have reversed the Volvo out of the garage whenever they needed a pint of milk, now share anecdotes they’ve heard from fellow passengers as the bus hurtles down the country lanes, leaving them in town with enough time to shop and grab a coffee before returning home. From the former city gent who sits at the back with the Financial Times to those taking their dog to the vet, it is a lifeline. For commuters, on the other hand, it is no use at all. For them, a car is essential.


We all hope that will soon change but, given recent news, we might have a long wait. Last week it was reported that the Scottish Government’s flagship £500m Bus Partnership Fund, set up in 2019 to prioritise bus transport, is to be put on hold for a year.

Launched with a fanfare, the fund was originally designed to improve bus services, reverse the decline in passengers and help towards achieving a 20% reduction in car kilometres by 2030. So far, its effects have been negligible. Only 26.9m has been disbursed, and at the moment it is closed for further applications.

Since it was established, the number of people using buses has dropped even further. In 2022-23 there were 301m annual journeys, down from 386m in 2019. In the 1990s, that figure was around 500m. Meanwhile, the number of public service buses run by local operators has slumped from 4,100 in 2019 to 3,200 last year.

Transport Scotland is understandably defensive about the pause. Citing “budgetary constraints”, it stresses that this is a temporary situation, and that other funding already allocated for 2023-24 will still go ahead, “to complete the delivery of the bus infrastructure underway for the benefit of passengers and operators, and conclude appraisal work underway that could inform future investment.”

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Fair enough, but you might ask why, five years after the Bus Partnership Fund opened, so little headway has been made. Covid might be partly to blame – including the drop in passengers - but other transport initiatives, such as low emission zones (LEZ) in our main cities, are being rolled out swiftly. Buses, by comparison, are stuck in the slow lane. Given that their main users are those on lower incomes (thank you Maggie), and that people with older, high-emission cars are unable to enter LEZ zones, would it not have made sense to get a vastly improved bus network in place before imposing these restrictions?

To mothball the upgrading of this pivotal part of the public transport network for a year makes absolutely no sense. Net zero targets are unattainable unless the number of bus routes and passengers increases, and the quality of services improves. As a result, this decision is not just puzzling, but shameful.

Environmental reasons alone justify the need to focus urgently on bus provision, but their importance goes further. For those with bus passes who are struggling with the cost of living crisis, it is a boon. For some it is not just their only way to get around but a social hub. Just the other day, a pensioner on our local bus enjoyed a trip to a village he rarely visits because the driver had raved about its butcher’s steak and haggis pie.

So much money is spent annually on subsidising concessionary bus travel for 5-21-year-olds and those over 60, it is clear that the government is aware of its importance. But all that good work needs to be enhanced, and fast. In the race to combat climate change, plans to deliver a first-class bus network should not be put on ice but rammed into top gear.