The town of Bo’ness lies 20 miles west of Edinburgh. It has 15,000 residents and it’s the kind of place where you would expect there to be good transport links to the capital. However, following the withdrawal of commercial bus services in 2016, local residents found themselves isolated.
Rab and Helen Jeffery decided to do something about this and called a meeting for the community to explore whether they could run their own service. Seventy-five people turned up at the first meeting. A team of five formed a committee and the Bo’ness and Area Community Bus Association (BACBA) was formed. They now provide two scheduled daily return trips into Edinburgh every Monday to Friday on a sixteen-seater minibus operating under a Section 22 permit.
Rab emphasises that the times of the journeys were arranged in response to community needs. The timetable has been carefully designed in consultation with the community, to suit people who want to go to Edinburgh for many different reasons including hospital appointments, social visits, education or employment.
Having commenced operations at the start of May 2017, the BACBA is still in its early days. The committee view this time as a trial period which allows them to learn how the bus works best, review their operations and make any amendments necessary to ensure that the Bo’ness Bus is fully in sync with the community it serves. Already they have achieved good success, with a steady flow of passengers and several days when the bus has been fully booked on each journey. Helen explains that people in the community are delighted that their transport needs are finally being heeded and that someone is paying attention to them.
Rab and Helen explained that the Bo’ness Bus has three main objectives: to facilitate social inclusion for those members of the community who find themselves isolated by recent cuts to public transport; to overcome barriers to employment for people living in the Bo’ness area; and to encourage visitors from Edinburgh to come to Bo’ness and the surrounding area.
However the benefits of the bus extend beyond the journeys it provides. Rab notes that the bus is already a source of community pride. It is community-owned and community-inspired, and it represents a joint endeavour which exists to make peoples’ everyday lives easier. The project has also brought together members of the community who previously didn’t know each other. Helen described the community atmosphere on the bus, where new friendships are made and cheerful conversations characterise the journeys. Bus driver Graeme Turton says that one of his favourite aspects of the job is hearing what people have done with their time in Edinburgh, whether going to a museum, a show, visiting friends or going shopping.
While they acknowledge that there were a few moments when they feared that the project might never be viable, Rab and Helen demonstrate the determination and creative problem-solving which characterise the community transport sector. The BACBA team have addressed the problem of funding by pursuing support from multiple sources and forging a range of partnerships to create a funding pot. Rab explains that the financial support from Falkirk Council was particularly important in getting the project off the ground, as was the start-up funding from First Port for social entrepreneurs. CTA and a neighbouring community transport operator helped with guidance and advice in setting up the service.
It’s clear that they have big plans for the future too – ideas currently under discussion include an early morning and evening service which would serve members of the Bo’ness community who need to commute into the city for work. The BACBA team have also received permission from the Traffic Commissioner to start weekend services, which they plan to begin in August in time for the Edinburgh Festival.
While the BACBA is off to a strong start, there are still challenges ahead. Rab and Helen are clear that they want to keep working to make sure that the bus service is sustainable. To do this, they emphasise the importance of using word of mouth within the community to make sure that everyone knows about the service. The BACBA team have found that once a person uses the bus for the first time, they are likely to become returning customers.
Bus driver Graeme is invaluable in this aspect. After completing a journey, he often jumps out of the bus at the Bo’ness station and chats with local people, explaining the function of the new bus and inviting people to try it for themselves. His enthusiasm and genuine care for the community exemplify the personalised service which makes community transport so special. As many of the Bo’ness Bus passengers are concession card holders, this extra personal service is important in helping people feel welcome and safe when using the bus.
Rab adds that it is also important to think big and be imaginative about the ways in which the bus can be used to serve the local community. The Bus recently began to welcome groups of walkers from Edinburgh, who use the service to access the John Muir Way at Blackness, which is a stopping point for the service. Without the Bo’ness Bus, they would have to travel separately by car to start their walk. Thus the bus provides a more environmentally-friendly, and more social, way for walking groups to access the beauty of the Scottish countryside. For people who live in Blackness, the Bo’ness Bus provides transportation right from their doorsteps into Edinburgh.
While the Bo’ness Bus project is still in its early days, the sense of excitement for the future is obvious when talking with Helen, Rab and Graeme. The BACBA team are all determined to ensure that the Bo’ness Bus is a success for the community. As Helen explains, the Bo’ness Bus is all about getting what a town needs and answering the needs of real people in real communities.