New bus network goes out to tender

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ZetTrans and Shetland Islands Council will next week put their proposed public and school bus network out to tender as part of a “radical change” to the public transport service.

The new services, which are expected to save the council £830,000 per annum, are scheduled to take over on Monday 18th August.

Final details of the pro­posed network will be publicly available following a two-week tendering process which will get under way on Monday.

The bus plan, drawn up with the assistance of consultants TAS Partnership, is aimed at making the service more efficient, reducing duplication and saving money.

The council will also bring the school bus service in line with statutory requirements – meaning children outwith the legal catchment area will be picked up from points on the scheduled route.

According to the partners, this has resulted in a smaller network, which should mean lower overall costs.

Education and families com­mittee chairwoman Vaila Wishart said: “Officers have highlighted areas where school transport pro­vision is more extensive than is required under a strict application of the legislation and our current policy.

“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.”

Safety remained an “absolute priority” and parents and schools retained the right to ask for a safety audit on any route.

The old piecemeal tendering process has been scrapped and all bus routes will be up for grabs on Monday, with the decision to put the tenders out taken in secret at a special council meeting on Wed­nesday.

The contracts for the pro­posed network are to run for five years from the middle of August.

Shetland transport bosses in­sisted that the re-jigged service is not intended to harm any of the 30-odd existing bus operators in Shetland, while the flexible ten­dering format will allow them to come back with their own proposals over the next two weeks.

Once these have been thrashed out, a formal announcement on routes and frequency of service will be made.

According to the SIC and tran­sport partnership ZetTrans, the network has been “redeveloped to provide the greatest likelihood of getting a set of services which is affordable to the council and still provide the best service possible in our present circumstances”.

ZetTrans runs public bus ser­vices, while the SIC issues school contracts and ultimately also pays for the public service.

ZetTrans chairman Alan Wishart said: “This will mean that instead of this ad hoc system of issuing a contract here and a contract there, we will have the ability to look at the whole thing together and seeing if the same service can be pro­vided.”

There may also be further shar­ing of secondary school and public bus services and changes to feeder and dial-up services.

Development services executive manager Michael Craigie said there had always been a combination of educational transport and public transport to some degree.

He said: “What we have done more so, this time, is to see where we can further integrate the new service network, which is a different shape to what we have now, with educational transport. It’s about efficiencies and rationalisation rather than cuts.”

There will also be less driver downtime, with ways of making fuller use of buses and drivers being introduced. According to Mr Craigie, vital links to medical services and shops will be preserved, but will be undertaken in a “more joined-up manner”.

There may be fewer services, but they will be “better co-ordinated to provide the same outcome”, he said.

The combined budget for public and school bus services in Shetland in the financial year 2012/13 was £3.72 million. In the current year the budget for these services is £3.61 million and for the next financial year it is £2.89 million – a 22.3 per cent reduction in budget, or £0.83 million.

The reduced budget was agreed as part of the SIC’s medium-term financial plan but certain costs may be index-linked.

According to Mr Craigie it will be open to operators to bid on their strengths.

ZetTrans’ part of the overhaul has concentrated on four principal areas:

• Reducing costs through packaging services together to get the best use of available buses and drivers in Shetland.

• Reducing over-provision and dealing with duplication of similar services.

• Reviewing the tendering process, along with terms and conditions of contracts, to simplify the process for contractors and lessen the risks they are asked to take when developing prices.

• Calculating what the costs of services should be, using a model which has been applied successfully in many different areas of the UK but adjusted to take account of conditions in Shetland.

Mr Wishart said: “The TAS Partnership has been working with staff to really understand how the network of services can be designed to be as efficient as it can be.

“This means we should be able to protect the important aspects of our bus services and even provide more effective connections on at least some of the mainline routes.

“The tenders will include some new services to the West Side and one or two areas that have been poorly served in the past.

“However, 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.

“I am confident that those ser­vices essential to the well-being of communities will be protected and even enhanced.”

Mr Wishart added that the coun­cil would also be looking to develop community transport initiatives. There were various funds accessible to communities that the council was unable to tap while providing transport. 

About Peter Johnson

Reporter for The Shetland Times. I have also worked as an employed and freelance reporter and editor for a variety of print and broadcast media outlets and as as a freelance photographer and film maker/cameraman. In addition to journalism, I have experience in construction, oil analysis, aquaculture, fisheries, the health service and oral history.

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