Cautious response to Scotland under-19 free bus travel

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Operators have reacted with a mixture of caution and hostility to plans to extend free bus travel to under-19s in Scotland.

The proposals have been agreed to “in principle” by Cabinet Secretary for Finance Kate Forbes, subject to research and due diligence.

She expects the extension of the free travel scheme to under-19s to begin in January 2021.

£15m has been allocated to the 2020-21 budget to pay for it. Scottish Green Party co-leader Patrick Harvie says the plans “will encourage whole generations of public transport users.”

Operators have pointed out that while the scheme may grant free bus travel in Scotland to the end user, steps must be taken to ensure it is funded correctly.

Andrew Jarvis, MD of First Bus (Scotland), has called for “a sensible discussion” between the industry, stakeholders and the Scottish Government about reimbursement to ensure that the scheme is sustainable.

“The full costs of providing this social benefit need to be paid to operators to ensure that we do not end up in a situation where under-19s have free travel, but there are no bus services for them to use,” adds Mr Jarvis.

Ross Prentice, MD of Haddington-based Prentice Coaches, is more scathing in his assessment of the planned scheme. “It is a poorly thought out commitment made only because the Scottish Green Party would not otherwise support the Scottish Budget,” he says.

“There has been zero industry consultation. Given that the concessionary fare reimbursement level is being cut each year, I fail to see how this proposal can be paid for.

“It was stated many years ago that bus operators would be no better off and no worse off when Transport Scotland introduced the current scheme, yet that is not the case. Free travel for under-19s could see many marginal routes withdrawn, or an increase in subsidy needed.”

Mr Prentice would instead prefer that discounted or free travel was given to young people either in further education or with an apprenticeship.