West of Scotland bus services are in a state of deep crisis.

An expensive, unreliable and uncoordinated public transport network holds us back, which is bad for communities and bad for the wider economy.

We’ve seen key services cut, fares increase dramatically in real terms over decades, and patronage massively dip. Buses have become a less attractive or non-existent option for many.

This year’s annual Transport Statistics show the extent to which the post-pandemic recovery has been limited, with the number of recorded journeys down 17 per cent compared to 2019-20.

Meanwhile, the private operators who run these services continue to receive public subsidies worth hundreds of millions of pounds, some of which continues to leak into the pockets of shareholders in the form of dividends.

This is no way to run a bus system, but since Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of services in 1986 it’s been the norm. 

Thanks to the tireless work of campaigners, though, there are reasons for optimism.

Last month, Strathclyde Partnership for Transport (SPT) announced its intention to re-regulate the bus network via a franchise arrangement, with SPT controlling all fares, routes and ticketing.

It would require firms to bid for contracts within a set and approved network of routes, allowing bus services to be operated in the public interest. 

The advantages of moving in this direction are clear: less used routes would be subsidised by busier, more popular routes.

At present, there’s little incentive for companies to keep services going if they’re not regarded as profitable.

We’ve seen this in North Ayrshire over recent years. For example, Stagecoach cut down service on the X36 and axed the X34 entirely.

When I met with the company on a number of occasions and appealed for the services to be retained, I was told they were simply “unviable” due to costs.

This may be true from a hard-headed business perspective, but not from a community perspective. For residents in Garnock Valley, for example, these cuts have reduced their access to travel options to Glasgow, leaving them travelling all the way via Kilmarnock or forking out to get a train station.  

By centrally funding the routes themselves, lifeline routes can be retained, even if it’s a small number of people who rely upon them.

This development from SPT is welcome. I encourage them to press further and explore the creation of a new publicly-owned bus company for Strathclyde, like Edinburgh’s Lothian Buses, which could reinvest profits in improving the network and hopefully substantially increase usage. 

The less positive news is that the Scottish Government has completely slashed SPT’s capital budget and are reticent to provide the funding needed to make these new measures successful. 

It perhaps explains why SPT are set on maintaining broken 'Bus Service Improvement Partnerships' with private firms in the short term until a franchise model can be established.

However, like much of the public, I’m heartened we’re finally seeing progress.

I’ll be fighting for the funding and resources to make a publicly controlled Strathclyde bus network a reality.