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October 17, 2023

Community Transport comes of age

The common perception of community transport is as a stop-gap filler for when public transport fails. Particularly in rural Scotland where many bus services have been curtailed or withdrawn completely, communities are often left with little choice but to step in with whatever they can muster in terms of mini buses or car share schemes. But as many of the projects showcased in the first ever Community Transport Week demonstrate, some are proving to be more popular and more commercially sustainable than the public operators. With a little more investment strategically placed, the Scottish Government might actually end up saving money.

Morag Lindsay, The Courier

When residents in Glenfarg learned their public bus service was being axed, they grabbed the wheel themselves.

The Perthshire village already had a community minibus to take groups on outings.

So, organisers decided to step up a gear and take over the running of the 55 service to Kinross.

They now have a charitable company – the Glenfarg Community Transport Group – with three salaried bus drivers and a 10-strong squad of volunteers.

The Glenfarg-Kinross service runs 11 times a day in both directions, and carries 250-300 passengers a week.

That’s twice as many trips a day as there were previously.

And they have just introduced a 7.10am commuter service, which connects with the bus to Edinburgh at the Kinross park-and-ride site.

It’s been quite the journey, says Glenfarg Community Transport Group chairman Drew Smart.

“What we’re doing is unique – this mix of community and service routes,” he said.

“I like to describe us as a cross between Dad’s Army and On The Buses.”

The villagers had never set their sights on becoming the next Stagecoach.

But when they learned the 55 service was under threat – for the second time in as many years – due to the closure of the local operator Earnside Coaches, they realised radical action was needed.

They held talks with Perth and Kinross Council and it was agreed that they would enter into a public social partnership with a view to taking over the route.

Volunteers were sought, professional drivers were recruited and a pilot scheme earlier this year demonstrated that they were more than up to the job.

In the first week of operation the group surpassed their own target and clocked up more than 200 passenger journeys.

Last week, they hit a new record with 81 passengers in a single day.

That’s dozens of car journeys saved, says Drew.

It also means people who don’t have access to a car can get to work, school, doctor’s appointments, haircuts, pharmacy pickups, optician appointments, family visits… the list goes on.

“When you get in that seat you’re not just a bus driver, you’re a social worker,” said Drew, who’s a GP in addition to being one of the volunteers.

“I can’t tell you how many problems have been solved between here and Kinross.

“For the community, it’s as much about the banter, the discussions, the giggles and songs, as it is about the transport.”

Beyond the 55 bus service, the Glenfarg Community Transport Group is thriving.

It does the school run, taking pupils from outlying homes to Arngask Primary School.

Around 100 people a week enjoy outings on the community bus to destinations including the theatre, shops, garden centres, social events, open gardens and golf outings, as well as a regular Tuesday Perth shopping trip.

The professional drivers do the 55 service and the school bus, while the volunteers take care of the community bus.

And demand for their services is so high they’re now looking to add a fourth vehicle to their fleet.

Because the 55 service prizes community over commerce, they can offer a “wiggly” route, deviating to other places – Duncrievie, Drunzie, Caulders Garden Centre etc – if that’s what passengers ask for.

It means passengers with limited mobility can be picked up at their home and dropped at the door of their destination.

And the next step is to secure a low floor accessible vehicle to open up the service to people in wheelchairs.

Where Glenfarg leads, others may follow

Drew and the team reckon their model could help to halt public transport decline in rural areas.

Tickets for the 55 service are £2 a time, or £5 for 10.

And other communities are looking at the Glenfarg experiment with interest.

Christine Morton (volunteer driver), Drew Smart (chairman of the transport group and volunteer driver), David Brooke (volunteer driver), Erin Fulton (community development manager with Planning Aid Scotland) and Robert Morton (volunteer driver). Image: Steve MacDougall/DC Thomson

Drew says the group have had excellent support from Perth and Kinross Council and others, including Community Transport Glasgow and the Community Transport Association.

And they’re not stopping at buses either.

Glenfarg FreeWheelers e-bike hire will be coming soon.

And the group hope to introduce a mobile phone app that will take bookings and payments, show the current location of the bus and give an accurate estimate of pick-up time.

Funding has come from Smarter Choices Smarter Place, Robertson Trust, Lottery, Binn Wind Turbine fund, Perth & Kinross Council and various grants.