Back in July I shared a petition about the planned axing of the only direct link between Bigtown and Edinburgh – the bus service. I was happy to see that, after a spirited campaign from Stand Up for Our Buses, the bus has been reprieved for now, with the hope that it can be funded on a more permanent basis after March.
Pleased as I was, I was also slightly guiltily aware that I personally have only used the bus once, when I was trying to get to Edinburgh on a Sunday (when no trains in the region shall move until After Kirk). Otherwise, I take the bus to Lockerbie and the train from there, a two-hour journey (allowing for connection times) in contrast to three hours on the bus. Signing petitions was all well and good but if I wasn’t willing to use the bus myself, then was it just sentiment to support it? Then again, the train service has become increasingly unreliable in recent months, and if you’re going to end up on a bus replacement service anyway, you might as well cut out the waiting around (and save a few quid) by going straight to the bus, especially with train strikes adding to the fun. So yesterday, with lunch in town with two old pals planned, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and take the bus.
I’ll confess now, that of all forms of public transport, rural bus services give me the most anxiety. In London, you catch a bus, and if one doesn’t show up as advertised, then there literally will be another one along in a minute. Out here, you catch the bus and, in the case of the 101/102, the next one will be along in three hours, so the stakes are quite high. There are no helpful announcements letting you know what’s going on (Bigtown did experiment for a while with electronic bus timetables in some of the bus stops in town but it turned out these were just showing you the schedule, not any sort of live information, and now they’ve all stopped working anyway). If you don’t have an app, then you’re stuck standing in a bus shelter (if you’re lucky), pondering the improbability of any sort of rural bus until it either arrives or it doesn’t.
On the other hand, the truth is that in all my time living up here and taking the bus on various occasions, it’s never not turned up, and barely ever even be late. And so it proved yesterday. Having arrived ridiculously early at the start of the route, the bus (and it very much is a bus; the service to Glasgow is a coach and has an actual toilet on board, as well as space for bikes, but this is pretty basic) arrived a few minutes before schedule. After a little puzzlement from the driver that I was attempting to pay cash (what can I say, I haven’t been on a bus since the Before Times), myself and several young people* were soon sailing north, past several other bus stops nearer our house that I could have used had I had the courage to do so.
This bus takes the scenic route through the Dalveen Pass (and also, crucially, stops at the motorway services along the way for a strategic comfort break for those of us without three-hour bladders). It wasn’t the emptiest bus I’ve been on by a long way, and once it got to Biggar it filled up nicely (and it was soon standing room only on the bus back). Three hours on a bus seat is, it turns out, about half an hour too long for my back and, unlike a train, it’s not possible to do any work on one, so the chances are I’ll be reverting to the train for future Edinburgh visits, unless I’m making the beginner’s error of trying to get there on a Sunday. But the experience has encouraged me to widen my travel horizons a little and try out more rural bus routes, especially out west where there are no trains anyway.
As for the Edinburgh service, I’m not that well versed in the economics of bus routes but it does seem strange that a bus that leaves the city with no spare seats (and with a good dozen folk still on board by the time we reached Bigtown) should be so unviable that it needs to be axed, when most bus routes around here are much less well used. It could be better advertised (it doesn’t help that at the Bigtown end the timetable in the bus stop gives no hint that the bus actually goes to Edinburgh at all, while at the Edinburgh end the timetable was out of date and the bus doesn’t appear on the live bus display), and it would be much more useful and less stressful if it ran a bit more frequently, as it used to do before the pandemic. Surely in these times of climate change, we should be encouraging people to take the bus, and supporting a service that is actually being used? But then again, we should also be enabling people to walk and cycle safely and look how well that’s going …
* Disappointingly, they were all wearing headphones and sat in silence for the entire journey. Normally on a local bus service the conversation quickly becomes general and some good stories are usually had en route.