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Bid to halt 'the sharp decline' in rural bus services

By Gordon Calder

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AN action plan is being drawn up in a bid to halt "the sharp decline" in rural bus services which has been heightened by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Hitrans, the regional transport partnership for the Highlands and Islands, wants more funding from the Scottish Government to be targeted on sustaining rural and island bus services. It believes lessons can be learned from the Covid crisis to tailor future services more closely to the needs of local areas, with major input from community transport groups.

The partnership is keen to see the re-instatement of a Rural Transport Fund and the Regional Transport Partnership grants to support improvements to infrastructure and public transport, including within the community transport sector.

Partnership board chairman, councillor Allan Henderson, is to write writing to Scottish Transport Secretary, Michael Matheson, to recommend the new measures and to point out that rural and island communities have been hit hardest by the pandemic but are not eligible for much of the existing and new support for bus services.

He said: "Many residents who were very reliant on subsidised local bus services and community transport have become increasingly isolated through lockdown and we now have the challenge (with partners) to support them to become socially active again, to regain their mobility and improve their wellbeing. This is a major challenge for the coming months and years, and one in which local bus services and community transport should have a significant role if it is supported. This is a prime example of where transport affords benefits far beyond transport itself, benefitting wider health and social care services."

Covid-19 has seen more home working across the public and private sector - a situation which, the partnership claims, gives an opportunity to reshape rural bus services and community transport with the right financial support package.

Mr Henderson added: "There is potential to benefit from community involvement on the back of the strength of the community response through the Covid experience. This could be captured through the development of targeted funding for rural and island areas focused on delivering across all four of the National Transport Strategy priorities -reducing inequalities, taking climate action, helping deliver inclusive growth, and improving health and wellbeing.

"There is a real opportunity in the current context to deliver services in new ways, using technology as well as community involvement, to inform good service design and delivery for the years ahead."

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