THE last-minute rescue of a city bus service is not the end of a battle to strengthen Highland links, according to councillors.
There is jubilation among users of the Lochardil-city centre number seven service, which is being axed by Stagecoach but taken over by rivals D&E Coaches.
It was not profitable enough for Stagecoach, who confirmed earlier this week it would be withdrawn as part of a radical timetable review.
SNP councillors were today set to seek cross-party backing for a bigger vision of publicly-owned bus networks across Scotland – if the necessary legislation and finances can be agreed nationally.
D&E managing director Donald Mathieson confirmed on Monday that his firm would take over the seven service from April 16.
"Our ability to do so is based on a leaner cost base and our emphasis on reliability," he said.
The Inverness-based company will run it without a council subsidy. It currently operates 15 routes within and into the city in addition to 20 school contracts.
Mr Mathieson said it would be a "use it or lose it scenario," but added he was confident of success.
A spokeswoman for Stagecoach said: "We’re pleased an alternative solution has been identified for the residents of Lochardil and hope this route proves to be sustainable in the longer term."
Inverness Ness-side councillor Ron MacWilliam, one of three SNP members pursuing the buses issue in the council chamber, said: "Any bus service is better than none, so I certainly welcome this reprieve for the number seven.
"At the same time, it’s not the last word on buses in Lochardil. The community is going to have to support the route for it to be sustainable in the long term."
An SNP motion going before today’s full council meeting in Inverness aimed to keep the debate under the spotlight.
It condemned the Stagecoach timetable shake-up as "detrimental to communities" and noted a Scottish transport bill going through the legislative process that "seeks to address many of the current problems in the commercial bus sector".
The motion reminded colleagues of a prospect of creating a publicly-owned bus network "if and when such powers become available to local authorities".
Stagecoach has dismissed any prospect of the council funding bus networks in the current financial climate as "pure fantasy".
Its withdrawal of the single-decker number seven route followed evidence that less than 21 per cent of seats were being used. Its new timetables are expected to be published online by March 26.
Welcoming news of the Lochardil lifeline, Ian McNamara, chairman of the Highland Senior Citizens Network said: "It shows campaigning does work. It must be down to the media."
Stagecoach maintains that its timetable rewrite reflects demand and will enhance its links to NHS sites, the Inverness Campus and Inverness Airport.
A survey for Citizens Advice Scotland, published yesterday, found two-thirds of people dissatisfied with bus frequency.