The council will seek tenders for five-year contracts to run its entire bus network this spring before deciding whether some routes may need to be cut.
There are 40 different operators providing a mixture of buses, coaches, taxis and private cars to cater
for Shetland’s complex web of public transport needs. That includes service buses, school runs and numerous feeder routes, along with services giving the vulnerable access to GP surgeries, shops and other amenities.
Until now operators have been awarded individual contracts in an essentially piecemeal fashion, with contracts generally lasting only two or three years.
But a number of councillors have been calling for a major overhaul since 2007, including political leader Gary Robinson and development committee chairman Alastair Cooper, and they are belatedly getting their way.
At Wednesday’s development committee meeting, both men welcomed what they viewed as long overdue progress on redesigning the bus service.
Mr Cooper had been asking
for something to be done since first being elected over five years ago. “The council is braaly slow sometimes,” he noted.
The process has been fraught with complication, with a number
of temporary contract extensions issued while staff tried to come up with solutions. A public consultation was carried out last summer.
Officials are now content that enough flexibility has been built in to put the entire network out to tender in April. The plan is to have operators in place in time for the new school year on 19th August.
But the changes come against a backdrop of massive spending cuts. By extending the duration of contracts to five years and giving would-be operators the chance to submit bids for several routes together, the hope is that significant inroads can be made into the £3.7 million-a-year budget.
A report to councillors from development director Neil Grant said that, while there was a “net increase” in the number of services being proposed, “reductions in some areas have offset much of the increase in others”.
Mr Robinson said a specific savings target had not been set, but he conceded some routes might have to be cut depending on the price of the various tenders.
“It’s just a case of seeing how the tenders come back, have the sit down [to consider the tenders] and just see what can be delivered within the amount of money that exists,” he said.
While costs – principally wages and rising fuel prices – have put pressure on the industry, Mr Cooper said he hoped allowing operators to buy new vehicles and spread the cost over a longer period of time could help cut costs.
“We believe that we can keep a reasonable bus service at the same time as saving money, which we’re badly needing to do,” he said.
For more, including fears about the “spectre of monopoly”, see this week’s Shetland Times.