Hopes are being raised that this week’s bombshell announcement by bus firm First that it is pulling out of the Borders will turn out to be for the best.
Berwick-based Perryman’s Buses took over two routes around Hawick, one linking Selkirk and Galashiels and another serving Oxton and Earlston from First Scotland East in August last year, and the company that bought it out at the end of last month, Argyll’s West Coast Motors, is now on the verge of concluding a deal to add the rest of First’s Borders operations to its portfolio of services.
Perryman’s performance since then is being cited by some as grounds for cautious positivity about the future of public transport in the region, and Borders MSP Christine Grahame yesterday told the Scottish Parliament that she is optimistic that the proposed switch of operator will end up being good news for passengers.
“I am hopeful that the change of provider will be good news,” the Midlothian South, Tweeddale and Lauderdale MSP told Depute First Minister John Swinney.
She also secured assurances from Mr Swinney that the Scottish Government will keep an eye on the situation to ensure that passengers’ interests are not threatened and was told that transport minister Humza Yousaf had already arranged to contact First next week to discuss its decision to pull out of the Borders, a move it blames on a fall in passenger numbers using its X95 Carlisle-Edinburgh service caused by the opening of the Borders Railway in 2015.
“There are 113 employees across the piece. Transfer of undertakings (protection of employment) regulations apply, but what reassurance can the Deputy First Minister give my constituents, both employees and passengers, about their jobs and their rural bus services, which are so vital?” she asked Mr Swinney.
He told her: “We are aware of the proposed sale of First Scotland East’s Borders operation to West Coast Motors.
“The proposed deal will, of course, be a commercial transaction, as she will know, but we are engaging with the operators and the relevant local authorities to understand the situation and any implications for the staff and the travelling public.
“We welcome the assurances that First has given that all jobs, pay and conditions will be protected.
“The minister for transport and the islands will be speaking with the managing director of First Scotland East next week to discuss the issue, and we will consult publicly later in the year on measures in the transport bill to address some of the issues that are raised.
“The transport minister will be happy to have further discussions with Christine Grahame and other interested members if that would be helpful.”
Heartened by that pledge, Ms Grahame said afterwards: “I asked John Swinney, the Depute First Minister, what assurances the Scottish Government could give to my constituents about our vital rural bus services and the 113 jobs that First currently provides.
“The Depute First Minister assured me that the Scottish Government is already engaging with the bus operators and the local councils and that the transport minister Humza Yousaf himself will be in touch with First again next week regarding the transition.
“Mr Swinney also said that there would be a public consultation later this year on the forthcoming transport bill, which I would encourage my constituents to respond to via the Scottish Government website, www.gov.scot
“That consultation will help shape the transport bill and strengthen the place of rural bus services.
“I also intend to take up the offer of further meetings with the transport minister as the changes to bus services in the Borders and Midlothian come into effect later this month.”
Scottish Borders Council is also hopeful that West Coast Motors’ takeover of First’s services in the region will be a positive development.
A council spokesman said: “We are aware of the discussions between First Scotland East and West Coast Motors regarding the purchase of First’s operations in the Borders.
“Having spoken to both operators this week, the council is confident that, should the purchase go ahead, the existing level of services for passengers will be maintained in the short term.
“The council already works alongside West Coast Motors, and its Perryman’s Buses business, after the company took on a number of First services in the Borders last year, which they are successfully operating.
“The council welcomes the assurances given by First that all jobs, pay and conditions will be protected, with staff transferring to West Coast Motors if the sale is completed.
“The council will work closely with both companies during any transition period and will continue its partnership with West Coast Motors to deliver improved services in the longer term, whatever the outcome of the current negotiations.”