'Not fit for purpose'
A STORM of controversy is raging over replacement buses put on the far north line by Stagecoach Highland.
Elderly passengers, others with mobility issues and parents with prams are having difficulty negotiating the narrow and twisting entrance steps in the "interdeck" buses, it is claimed.
There are also complaints that access to the on board toilet is also difficult – so much so that one disabled passenger could not manage to get to it and had an accident on the seat.
Feelings are running so high that the issue was this week raised in Westminster by far north MP Jamie Stone.
The far north X99 line runs from Inverness to Thurso and is a lifeline for many residents without their own transport. The full journey lasts around four hours.
In the new, high-level buses, the driver is at floor level with two disabled seats behind and space for a wheelchair. All other passengers have to climb a steep set of steps to the upper deck.
Far north resident Nancy Nicolson, who is temporarily disabled following a fall, slammed the replacement bus as the "worst-designed vehicle ever".
She said: "The entrance step does not lower; there are no grab-bars at the door to pull myself up and then there is a steep and narrow stair, impossible for me.
"Access to the toilet was up impossible stairs, then down again – it was too much for one disabled passenger who soaked the velvet seat."
Another north resident Brenda Payne said: "The new Stagecoach so-called double-decker coaches are not designed for use on public service runs that have lots of elderly and infirm passengers who cannot go up the narrow, steep stairs."
Former Durness bookshop owner Kevin Crowe, now living in Caithness, has been protesting about the buses since the turn of the year and has complained to Stagecoach and local councillors.
In an online post he wrote: "Stagecoach receives substantial subsidies from the Highland Council in order to run services in remote areas. The council should make it clear to Stagecoach that a requirement of any subsidy is the provision of accessible buses on all routes."
MP Jamie Stone decided to raise the matter in the Commons after receiving a "steady stream of complaints" about the replacement buses.
He said: "I think that it has to be recognised at a high level in Stagecoach that these buses are not fit for purpose from the point of view of the elderly and disabled. While Stagecoach makes play of the fact that these buses have a wheelchair lift, that is no comfort to the disabled passengers who are not in wheelchairs.
"At the end of the day Stagecoach must be made to understand the problem and they must be persuaded to made the necessary alterations to the X99 buses."
A spokesperson for Stagecoach said: "All of our vehicles which operate between Inverness and Caithness are fully DDA compliant and are fully accessible to wheelchair passengers. We are aware of the desire for more low-floor vehicles in Caithness and will keep this in mind as we review our fleet throughout the full north Scotland company."