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Bus operators angry with SIC demands

Mind the gap. The council and bus operators remain a long way apart over the redesigned bus network. Photo ShetNews

BUS operators are set for a head on collision with Shetland Islands Council over attempts to redesign the local public transport network.

Two weeks ago the council agreed to postpone issuing new bus contracts by up to six months, after tenders for the new network came in around £1 million above what they could afford.

However bus operators have hit back saying the council was asking them to tender for as much as three times as many runs as they currently provide, while trying to cut the budget by 25 per cent at the same time.

The council is attempting to modernise the local bus service to address concerns that some people, especially those living in the north and west mainland, are getting a poor deal from the current service.

During recent consultations young people complained about a lack of late night transport home from Lerwick at weekends, while working people feel excluded from jobs in the town that require an early morning start.

The council felt that the existing network had grown up in an ad hoc fashion over the past 20 or 30 years and needed to be brought up to date.

However while some areas of Shetland, such as the south mainland, were to expect a reduction in service, other parts were facing a significant increase.

One operator said he was being asked to provide tens of thousands of extra runs per year, at the same time as the council budget was being slashed from £4 million to £3 million.

“How could they possibly expect the industry to provide all these extra runs? There is no way in creation you can provide the runs they have tenders in for with the budget they have got,” he said.

Another added: “The tenders apparently came in over budget, but that was to be expected because we were tendering for far more than the current schedule.

“There were a considerable number of extra runs, especially late into the evening and feeder runs.”

Operators say the proposed changes will make it even harder to find drivers, especially when they are being asked to provide a late run the night before an early one that would leave as little as five hours between shifts.

There is also extra pressure with drivers being snapped up to take construction workers to and from the Shetland gas plant being built at Sullom Voe, with drivers even being brought up from south to meet demand.

“I’ve been struggling with the lack of drivers for years and it’s getting worse and worse and worse. Now our backs really are to the wall and I have no back up if anyone is off sick,” one operator said.

The council has brought in passenger transport specialists TAS Partnership to help them build up a clearer picture of what is possible to achieve in the unique Shetland environment where there are around 40 private bus operators tendering for council contracts.

In neighbouring Orkney, national transport operator Stagecoach scooped up all the bus contracts in return for a cheaper price, though there are suggestions they are finding it hard to make the service pay.

Now SIC transport staff and bus company chiefs are preparing for face to face talks to clear the air so that a way forward can be found.

A council spokesman said they accepted that they were looking for a significant increase in service in some parts of Shetland.

He added that he hoped a “genuinely respectful dialogue” would allow new contracts to be signed sooner than the new deadline that has been set for August next year.