Fears have been voiced over the future of bus services in Hawick after a transport company’s shock decision to withdraw its entire fleet from the region.
The exact impact on services and jobs of operator First Scotland East’s unexpected announcement remains unclear, but it has sparked widespread concern, with Ettrick, Roxburgh and Berwickshire, MSP John Lamont saying it will “put the whole transport system in the Borders at risk”.
First has sold its operations to West Coast Motors, and it is to take over all the routes from Saturday, March 25, possibly rebranded as Borders Buses.
Its Galashiels bus depot and Peebles, Hawick and Kelso outstations, together with all its 100-plus employees, will transfer to the new company.
First cites a 35% reduction in passenger numbers on its X95 Carlisle-to-Edinburgh service as the main factor in its decision.
The company blames the success of the Borders Railway for that decline, claiming the competition “made it difficult to maintain a sustainable service”.
Hawick and Denholm councillor Watson McAteer contacted First’s managing director, Paul McGowan, just a few weeks ago after hearing rumours that changes were afoot but was given reassurances that the X95 service was safe.
Mr McAteer said: “There are no surprises that First is deserting Hawick and other Borders communities. The writing was on the wall a few weeks ago when they denied rumours that councillor Stuart Marshall and I asked them about.
“However, West Coast Motors has come to the rescue of Hawick and the Borders once again, and we are in good hands with a company with such a strong track record.
“Stuart Marshall and I have been actively working with it to enhance routes in Hawick, and I have every reason to believe they will be equally receptive to ensuring our established routes to Carlisle and Edinburgh remain strong and viable.
“We have asked for an early meeting with the company to listen to its business plans and to seek the reassurances townsfolk and employees will naturally be looking for.
“This is very good news for Hawick, and I look forward to working closely with a modern forward looking business.”
Fellow ward councillor Mrt Marshall added: “I have already been contacted by townsfolk who have heard news of the proposed sale.
“I have genuine fears of what impact a subsequent sale is likely to have on the current level of service for those that I represent.
“I have been in contact with the council leader David Parker to see what the council plans to do to manage this worrying development and indeed to reassure townsfolk that they will continue to receive effective bus services.”
It is not clear whether vehicles will be involved in the transfer, leaving open the possibility that new buses could operate on the X95 route in the near future.
Mr Lamont said: “This is hugely concerning news, which puts the whole transport system in the Borders at risk.
“The impact on local jobs and the existing bus routes remain unclear. While I understand there will be no immediate changes, it will be open to the new operator to reduce services after a relatively short time. This would be a huge blow to many people who rely on bus routes.
“Residents in the Borders have already been forced to stay at home or use their cars by an ever-shrinking bus service, and I fear the latest announcement will just further reduce passenger numbers.
“Clearly, the Borders Railway has had an impact on the viability of bus services in the area, so I would expect the council to look closely at the effect of the new line on bus routes.
“We need to be looking at better integrating the transport network in the Borders so that the whole area benefits from the railway.”
Paul McGowan, managing director of First Scotland East, said: “Despite the focus on services and the hard work of everyone across our business, unfortunately the introduction of the Borders Railway in 2015 has impacted on demand for bus travel and our services are becoming increasingly unsustainable.
“I’m pleased we have an agreement in principle to sell the operations to West Coast Motors, a reliable and well-established transport company.
“We’re proud to serve the Borders community and would like to thank passengers for travelling with First Scotland East over the years. I can assure customers that we will continue to run services as normal throughout the proposed transition.”
As well as its Borders services First is also withdrawing from all Midlothian routes.
A spokesperson for West Coast Motors said: “We are currently in advanced negotiations with First Scottish East regarding purchase of its operations in the Scottish Borders. It would be inappropriate to comment whilst those talks are ongoing.”
A Scottish Borders Council spokesperson said: “The council is aware of the discussions between First Scotland East and West Coast Motors regarding the purchase of First’s operations in the Borders.
“We will continue to engage with both operators during this process.
“Should the sale be concluded, the council will look forward to working with West Coast Motors, who are already well established in the Borders.”
Argyll-based West Coast Motors already operates services in Hawick, via its Perryman’s Buses subsidiary, after taking them over from First last year.