CONTRACTORS will be invited to tender for the islands’ entire public and school bus network next week, with Shetland Islands Council hoping to cut spending on buses by almost a quarter.
The fine detail of a “radical” overhaul of the bus network won’t be published until contractors have been appointed, likely to be in mid May.
The new network is due to be up and running by 18 August, with contracts to run for five years, after councillors agreed in private on Wednesday to begin issuing tender documents as of Monday 3 March.
Officials from the SIC and transport partnership ZetTrans have been working together on integrating public and school bus services while striving “to make sure that services are affordable within shrinking budgets while still meeting legal requirements and important social and economic needs”.
A similar exercise 12 months ago had to be abandoned after tender prices came in at around £1 million more than the council and ZetTrans could afford.
SIC transport chief Michael Craigie said the main problem had been “a lack of manpower”. In September transport specialists from the Preston-based TAS Partnership were brought in to help review and redevelop the network.
The local authority’s budget for bus services this year is £3.61 million. Depending on the prices returned by the isles’ multiple bus operators for the various routes, council officials hope the changes will cut spending to £2.89 million – a reduction of £830,000 or 22.3 per cent.
ZetTrans chairman Allan Wishart said the goal was a “really radical change” in how transport is provided, consigning to the past a system of awarding contracts in a piecemeal fashion.
“Up until now public transport over the years has altered, developed and changed very much on an ad-hoc basis,” Wishart said, “with individual areas of Shetland having their own bus service with the contracts being let out as they came to an end.”
Council representatives were reluctant to speak about “cuts” to the service, though Wishart did admit “it may seem in some areas that services are being reduced, when in most cases the frequency and routing of the service has been altered”.
He is keen to put an end to a situation where some buses were “sitting in a bus park for three hours” and to make use of the “downtime when they [operators] are doing nothing but being paid for it”.
“This is the first time the whole of Shetland has been brought together – there’s a lot more opportunity for operators to look at the services they can provide, to operate as efficiently as they possibly can.”
The redesigned network will include some new services on the West Side and “one or two other areas that have been poorly served in the past”.
Wishart talked of most of the savings coming through “efficiencies” – packaging services together to get the best use of available buses and drivers, and eliminating duplication of similar services.
There has been unrest among parents about secondary school children having to walk longer distances on single track roads, particularly on dark winter days, to catch the bus.
But education and families chairwoman Vaila Wishart said there had been “overprovision” on some school bus routes. Stripping that out will mean a smaller network and lower overall costs, but she said pupils’ safety remained “an absolute priority”.
The council has examined what standards are legally required, resulting in “adjustments to the extent of the network through more rigid application of distance entitlements from home to pick up/drop off points”.
Wishart said: “In these times where costs have to come down, we must take every opportunity to make sure we are providing services at the right level.”
Craigie said the council and TAS Partnership had “taken the whole network, pulled it apart and put it back together again”.
Again shying away from using the term “cuts”, Craigie said there would be “a lower number of actual services… but they are coordinated better”.
He gave the example of a dial-a-ride service taking Burra residents to the Scalloway doctors’ practice, where there will be fewer bus runs but the service will be “right to the door”.
He added that some of the nearly 40 different bus operators in Shetland had been consulted regularly since September. Once prices are submitted, there will be a two week period for negotiations.
Asked whether the overhaul might jeopardise some operators’ future, Craigie responded: “There’s nothing in the intent here to put folk at risk. They can use their own creativity to see what they might want to link together.”
Though the £2.89 million budget will largely be fixed from now until 2019, allowances will be made for any inflationary costs, such as an increase in fuel prices.