John Ruddy says re-regulation of Scotland’s bus services could deliver a whole range of benefits for passengers, but we could go even further and deliver a truly radical shift in transport use, help revitalise local communities and change many lives for the better. 


Public transport in Scotland is in need of a revolution. While there is justified focus on the performance of ScotRail and whether it would perform better as a nationalised operator, arguably more attention should be paid to the state of bus services and their integration with rail and other modes.

Nearly 400 million journeys were made last year in Scotland by bus, while 94 million went by rail. Yet rail receives over £730 million in subsidy from the Scottish Government, while the national concessionary bus fare scheme costs a mere £180 million – and even that has had a cut.

Reverse the decline

Bus patronage has been declining in Scotland for a number of years, and while fares have been lower than in England this has now begun to reverse, with recent Scottish rises higher than those in England and Wales. Meanwhile the overall cost of motoring has been reduced in real terms, in part due to the freezing of fuel duty since 2010. Train usage has nearly doubled in Scotland since 1994, and more trains mean a more congested network.

Rail services in Scotland (and elsewhere in the UK) are highly specified. Government dictates how many trains should be leased, to what specification, what times they should run, and how frequently. Performance and standards are regularly monitored and fines imposed for non-compliance. But bus services are left to vary at the whim of operators, with little attempt at co-ordination, either with other operators services or with rail and other modes of transport.

Regulate to accumulate

The case for regulation of buses is clear. After the 1986 Transport Act was enacted by the Tories only London still regulated its bus services. While bus ridership has fallen across the country, in London it has risen – since 2004/5 by over 30%. Increasingly this has meant pressure on local authorities to subsidise routes, but with council budgets under unprecedented pressure this has meant that overall bus mileage in Scotland is down 21% since 2007. Only by regulation of bus services, with pooling and sharing of revenues across the network rather than cherry picking, can this be turned around.

But we need to go further. We need to implement the equivalent of Ken Livingstone’s ‘Fare’s Fair’ policy of 1981, and the later introduction of the Travelcard. Scotland has lagged behind London when it comes to the SmartCard too. Oyster is 15 years old, yet our own “Saltire Card”, launched 6 years ago by Nicola Sturgeon, still does not cover all rail journeys and tickets, let alone bus journeys. Meanwhile, London has moved onto contactless payment, with your bank card acting as your Oyster Card and automatic caps ensuring that users are not over-charged where a day ticket would have been cheaper.

Set our buses free

With regulation, not only can timetables be integrated, but so can ticketing. Fares can be simplified or reduced. It should also be a goal to provide local bus travel for free to residents. In Wales they have trialled offering free bus travel at the weekends. But we should go further, just as in Estonia where residents can get free bus and tram travel all day every day.

Such a policy would transform both bus services and the lives of those who use them most. People in the bottom 20% of income use buses 5 times as much as they use trains, and a freeze on rail fares would benefit the better off most. If we want to be truly radical and redistributive, a policy of free bus travel would help those who need it most – whether to get to work or to have access to public services that are becoming increasingly centralised.

The cost of this need not be prohibitive either. Currently, bus operators in Scotland take £370m in revenue through the fare box. If the Government were to replace that, then the total subsidy for bus passengers per mile would still be half that for rail users. Removal of wasteful competition and the use of cross subsidy from the more profitable routes onto the less profitable ones will reduce costs.

Such a policy would not only cause a modal shift in transport use, but evidence suggests that it will also drive additional footfall to high streets and other commercial areas, helping to boost employment. Ultimately, passengers in Scotland see our public transport system as fragmented, with confusing and expensive fares, and with timetables and services that don’t join up. The Government has attempted to join up the various modes with websites such but to little effect. Only a radical overhaul of our transport system will deliver the changes we need to see.

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20 thoughts on “Time for a people’s bus service

  1. Great idea ‘radical lefty’ or is it ‘centrist dad’? But I have two words that blow a hole right in the middle, unfortunately, Brian Souter!

      1. Not like Labour to be behind the times 🙂

        According to registered political donations, Brian Souter hasn’t made a donation to the SNP since 2014.

        He didn’t give anything to Nicola Sturgeon’s 2015 general election campaign, or the Holyrood election campaign in 2016.

        In fact his last political donation was in late 2014 to a Liberal Democrat branch south of the border.

        As an SNP supporter I think it’s a good article though, I think a review of how both bus and rail services are delivered is long overdue.

        Transport should be run as a vital public service which in turn will help employees and businesses be more efficient and greener and not about chasing profit margins.

      2. Its certainly radical for Labour who had over 10 years to over turn Thatchers privatisation program but instead chose to continue implementing it.
        Yet another case of Labour in opposition spewing rhetoric on issues they wont implement when in power. How is bus regulation in Wales these days?

  2. I would set up a system whereby all ticketing is valid across all local bus services in Scotland for certain journeys. To make that work we first set a maximum route distance say for example 20 miles so that anybody can board a local bus with their tickets and travel within the maximum route distance 20 miles with their ticket, they can get on and off any bus as many times as they like and can board any another bus and continue their journey as long as the bus boarded has a maximum route distance of 20 miles. To make it easier to understand any bus route more than the maximum route distance of 20 miles would require buying another ticket as it would be classified as long distance. In theory if you wanted to travel from a to b and the total distance from a to b is 60 miles then you could hop on and off as many buses as you like as long as they do not exceed the maximum route distance of 20 miles until you get to your final 60 miles destination at no extra cost with one ticket.

  3. John
    My only means of travel is the bus in North Ayrshire that means Stagecoach
    The no 11 Ardrossan to Kilmarnock is by far the busiest ,
    It was supposed to run every 7 to 8 mins from Monday It is every 10 mins .
    My local labour councillor Robert Foster has been in the local papers quite correctly complaining about the timetable change .
    Its Stagecoaches most profitable route but passengers quite often have to stand in all weathers for half an hour sometimes .Then like today 2 turn up together a bus inspector or correct title regulator sprints across the road to move a bus on .
    The company claim the delays are caused by road works on the route correct but what was the excuse before that.
    At least 2 hospitals on the route .
    And I don’t know how many schools. Take today 2 double deckers both late both full .
    My bus every seat taken both decks standing room only school kids standing some on the stairs .
    Driver pulled in at a stop and told the stair kids find a seat or get off .
    The kids without being cheeky told him no seats .
    We only moved on because other passengers managed to squeeze the kids in between them that and the bays had a full load of chairs and prams.
    The kids normally get a seat but prams v chairs and OAPS is everyday .
    Prior to 2014 when I had to take an ill health retirement for work I had to take 7 bus journeys a day it used to kill my wage although a lot of it was to help the company out I was not allowed to claim expenses .
    When I got that bus pass a whole new world opened up .
    The bus pass is central to me getting out and about was in Irvine today and Kilmarnock my GP is delighted I get out and he asks .
    Fares are that dear I could not do it on my pension and benefits .
    Fares are a big problem for people Stagecoach have a monopoly in North Ayrshire .
    Whenever they decide a service is not profitable they pull it .Or reduce the service often despite local campaigning to save a service .
    In the past Stagecoach when a rival service starts up in order in their words to protect market share would run 1 bus in front and 1 behind.
    Many years ago when Stagecoach encroached onto First bus Glasgow routes .
    First bus then turned up on our no 11 route for bus wars and to make sure we used their bus both companies did not charge fares .
    This happy state of affairs ended when both companies in a sweet heart deal moved their busses of each others routes and Stagecoach put the fares up .
    I thing happened a man told me when he got on a First bus the driver lowered the platform that was a God send to him .
    From then on him and I would imagine most other people with a disability used First bus.
    Stagecoach did follow suit .
    I just want a regular bus service .
    Before I got the bus pass fares were a major drain on my wage I would like to see a scheme where fares are capped at no extra cost to the passenger .
    And the reason for any fare increase explained to the travelling public especially on major routes where no other bus company is operating. In other words no opposition .
    I have never thought it is safe to have driver only I would like conductors back remember come oan get aff
    Maybe to much to hope for
    More bus competition might be the answer but on already busy roads some one more intelligent than me might have the answer


  4. I would have a digital information screen at each bus stop that has a bus shelter telling folks the real time arrival for each bus due at the stop and have it constantly changing as it updates for example bus number 77 10min… 7min… 5min… 2min… arrive. For bus stops without a shelter then you could check the time of the arrival in real time on your smartphone by just putting in the number of bus for example 77 and the bus stop number 5 and it should tell folks in real time the time of arrival for example 10min… 7min… 5min… 2min… arrive. All buses would be location tracked by gps tracker and the info relayed by a central computer via WiFi controlled network to all bus stop digital displays and if you push the boat out each bus stop without a bus shelter information digital display screen could instead have a WiFi hotspot on top of the bus stop pole for folks to log on to check arrival times.

  5. Ted
    We have the digital information screens at most bus stops with a shelter in my area sometimes they are a bit embarrassing for stagecoach .
    On the bus today 2 school kids gave up their seat for me as soon as I got on the bus .
    Don’t know them but I did say thanks .
    After I got off and went home I phoned the school to tell them what the young ladies had done .I also said they gave up their seat without being asked a credit to their school

    1. David thanks for the info regarding the digital information screens, lf l had my way l would have it in voted into legislation that all public buses are fully electric across all bus routes in Scotland. I would nationalise all buses and bus routes and would
      standardise the fleet so for example you have 3 sizes of buses small medium large depending on the route. All the fleet of buses would be bulk buyed and there would be a surplus of buses bought in order to swap over to when the batteries on a bus route are going flat. Also the standardised fleet would be easier maintain due to the uniformity of the buses. I would like to see bus depots in the vicinity of the various wind farms in Scotland to be hooked up and charged directly from the wind farms. Whilst l am on about wind farms l would like to see all wind farms in Scotland nationalised and come under the management of the Scottish Government. Finally l am glad that you showed your appreciation for getting a seat on the bus by giving credit to the youngsters school well done.

  6. Thank you for your comment Ted
    I agree with everything you said So come on back into the Labour party fight for it to be policy haha
    When I phoned the school and got asked the time I got on the bus .
    I had to think wait a minute were they supposed to be on the bus yes they were haha the school were very grateful
    For the phone call.
    I did point out there was a lot of laughing and giggling after they got off I pointed out nothing to do with me
    And the school agreed no need to investigate that haha

    1. David thanks for dangling the Labour Party carrot but l am not going to bite for the time being l am waiting for somebody to start an lndependent Scottish Labour Party with one of it’s main aims being to campaign for an Independent Scotland. I have sometimes thought that there is a slight possibility that I would join an Independent Scottish Labour Party that although in did not support an Independent Scotland it was nonetheless a completely autonomous and a separate party from the Labour Party UK in other words not a branch office.

  7. About buses Kilmarnock bus station is at the Burns Shopping Mall
    Toilets are just inside the entrance on the left.
    Ayr bus station no public Toilets and no info on where there are any .
    Nearest toilets are quite a walk away cost 30p

    1. David one of my pet bugbears is the paying for access to use toilet’s especially public toilets would you believe it if l told you that the public toilets in Regents Park London costs 20p and this is a Royal Park that is part of the crown estate and it’s folk’s like me who fork out in taxes to subsidise the monarchy who are the Crown and they have the barefaced cheek to sting me for 20p. It wouldn’t be so bad if old Jug ears himself got down to the toilets in person and gave them a right good seeing to with a bog brush, on my latest visit l was not at all impressed by quality of the toilet paper it was cheap and cheerful and l would categorise it as a rather rough parchment. For 20p l expect a quality service so for Regents Park toilets from 1-5 l give them a 2 additional comments l recommend using a more pungent bleach for cleaning of the urinals there’s room for improvement.

  8. Labour continuing with their nasty habit of “Promising” policy introduction on policy that has been implemented in Scotland for years. Policy which they opposed because it was introduced by the SNP.
    Case in point hospital car parking charges. Car parking charges everybody in Wales will continue to pay in spite of the worthless rhetoric and non intent.
    Utterly shamelessly corrupt opportunistic and dishonest to the core. And they continue to wonder why they cant make ground on the most vile tory fascist Government in living memory.

    1. l am a supporter of an lndependent Scottish Labour Party in an Independent Scotland the problem with the Labour Party UK is that it’s sections in Scotland and Wales are but sections and in reality are not parties. That said both of the sections supporters in Scotland and Wales oppose Independence and for and the supporters of the Scottish section of the Labour Party UK in particular they argue that they support a Labour Party UK that pools and shares resources and as l see it there is a conflict of interest in that you cannot have a Labour Party UK if there is no central policy as is clearly shown by the different Labour sections hospital car parking charges in relation to the charges in Wales for hospital car parking as opposed to no charges in Scotland. Can somebody please tell me why the Labour Party UK allow it’s section in Wales to allow hospital car parking charges.

    2. Mike
      I just checked I might be wrong but carparking at NHS hospitals in Wales is now free .
      Apparently the problem was long term contracts with companies which had to run their course .

      1. David thanks for your update l have checked and it’s the Hospitals in Northern Ireland and England that still charge for parking, with the latter making £174m from the charges last year. As for Northern Ireland l can’t understand why they are charging for hospital car parking after the DUP getting a 1billion pound bribe from the Tories.

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