BUS giant Stagecoach has been accused of a "callous" disregard for its customers in its latest revision of Inverness bus timetables.
The company is beginning a public consultation on the proposed changes, insisting that a reduction would reflect decreased demand in some areas.
But a band of Highland councillors has been quick to roundly condemn the planned alterations as significant cuts in services that would also damage the environment. The proposed changes are due to take effect in April.
The company wants customer feedback about new schedules that would "reflect demand and improve journey times" in Inverness, the Black Isle and Easter Ross.
Stagecoach North Scotland managing director Mark Whitelocks said the company was continuing to experience "difficult operating conditions," and that it continued to discuss with the council and others "the need for more and better bus priority".
He added: "We continue to see journey times extend for our services given the volume of car traffic around the city."
As news of the latest consultation surfaced, the company instantly faced demands to rethink its draft proposals.
Ness-side Liberal Democrat councillor Alasdair Christie urged it to withdraw a proposal to remove the No.7 service from Lochardil.
"I’m shocked and disappointed," he said.
"It’s an area with a large population of older folk who depend upon buses as their means of transport for shopping, visits to GPs and to see friends and family.
"This proposal shows a callous side of a multimillion-pound company. It also demonstrates a lack of awareness of the needs of our area.
"Many children depend upon transport to attend activities and take part in organised events. Many young adults will find it hard to get to work or to the university."
The company said it was discussing possible solutions with Highland Council but that its proposals were "reflective of the passenger numbers on this route over the past year".
Anne Campbell, a regular No.7 bus user, was furious to learn that the service could be axed.
Moments before boarding a No.7 she said: "That’s unbelievable. I’m absolutely disgusted. The service has been very unreliable but it’s well used.
"I don’t use it for work. I use it to get into town. If you rely on it for work, it’s just hopeless. I hear from some of my neighbours that it sometimes doesn’t turn up when people really need it to get to work.
"In the last couple of weeks they’ve told me that the 8am bus hasn’t turned up and the 8.30am hasn’t turned up either!"
Central ward SNP councillor Richard Laird said: "They’re stopping the Sunday service in Dalneigh, which is obviously going to cause a problem for elderly folk relying on a bus to take them to the shops, the church and other activities.
"If Stagecoach want to properly understand why they’ve got problems with ridership it’s because they keep changing bus routes, timetables and numbers every six months."
Non-aligned Inverness South member Ken Gowans said: "These proposed changes will mean significant cuts in bus services. Residents of Westhill and Cradlehall, for example, would suffer reduced frequency and increased inconvenience.
"These are inappropriate at a time when there’s increased congestion and an emphasis on improving connectivity while reducing our carbon footprint.
"I urge everyone to respond to the consultation robustly if they value their public transport links."
Green Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie claimed that bus services across the north were "not serving the communities that rely on them most".
He said: "It’s not acceptable that private providers can cherry-pick the most profitable routes and leave others stranded at the bus stop.
"The Scottish Government are bringing forward a transport bill later this year and the Scottish Green Party are clear that better bus services must be at the heart of this legislation.
"In Edinburgh, the Lothian bus model shows that a publicly owned service does work. We’re calling for this approach to be rolled out across the country."
Culloden community leader David McGrath, often a critic of bus services, was less concerned.
He said: "This is Stagecoach setting up their long-term plan to make UHI their hub for bus services on the east side of the town. They have a similar set-up at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
"This will all come together when the new East Link road crosses the south rail line. Then, a lot of services to Cradlehall, Culloden and beyond will all run via this road."
The consultation period runs until February 18. Public events will be held at Inverness bus station today (Friday) from 10am-2pm, Saturday same times and on Tuesday from 4-6.30pm.
Consultation details are also online at www.stagecoachbus.com/promos-and-offers/north-scotland/highland-timetable-consultation