BUS operators First is to withdraw its entire fleet from the Scottish Borders later this month.

A deal has been done for Campbeltown company West Coast Motors to take over the routes.

On completion of the sale, which is expected to conclude on March 25, the Galashiels depot, Peebles, Hawick and Kelso outstations, and all employees, will be transferred.

First has cited a 35 per cent reduction in passenger numbers on its main X95 - Carlisle to Edinburgh - service as a factor in the decision.

Paul McGowan, Managing Director of First Scotland East, said: “Despite the focus on services and the hard work of everyone across our business, unfortunately the introduction of the Borders Railway in 2015 has impacted demand for bus travel and our services our becoming increasingly unsustainable.

“I’m pleased we have an agreement in principle to sell the operations to West Coast Motors, a reliable and well established transport company.

"I'm confident their experience operating in rural areas will be of great benefit to the business.

“The proposed sale does not, in any way, reflect the commitment of our employees in the area who have worked tirelessly to provide the best possible service to local communities.

"I’d like to thank them for their hard work and loyalty over the years. We will be fully supporting them throughout this process.

“We’re proud to serve the Borders community and would like to thank passengers for travelling with First Scotland East over the years.

"I can assure our customers that we will continue to run services as normal throughout the proposed transition.”

As well as its Borders services First is also withdrawing from all Midlothian routes.

And now Borders MSP Christine Grahame is seeking an urgent meeting with MD of the new company Colin Craig to gain assurances over the future of the affected routes and the employment of First staff in the area.

Ms Grahame said: “This announcement was a surprise to me though I have been aware for some time that the X95 was subsidising other less profitable First routes in the Borders.
“The absolute priority must be maintaining continuity of service for all the communities First currently serves and the 113 local jobs it provides.

"I have had an early meeting with Paul McGowan – MD of First Scotland East – and he has assured me that arrangements have been made with the bus operator Craig of Campbeltown Ltd to take over the routes.

“First employ 113 staff across the Borders and Midlothian and TUPE applies, meaning all First employees will keep their jobs, pay and conditions upon the transfer.

"The transfer of the routes to the new operator should be finalised by March 25."

A ten week period between the handover prevents any changes to the current timetable. But from June 3 the new operator is entitled to begin consultations on any planned changes or reductions.

Ms Grahame added: "I will be monitoring this situation very carefully indeed as it develops.

"I am seeking an early meeting with Colin Craig, who will be in charge of the new service which I understand may be liveried as Borders Buses Ltd, and will be stressing to him the importance of our local bus routes and the employment it provides.”

And other local politicians have also had their say on the issue.

Fellow MSP John Lamont described the news as "hugely concerning".

He said: “This is hugely concerning news, which puts the whole transport system in the Borders at risk.

“The impact on local jobs and the existing bus routes remain unclear.

"While I understand there will be no immediate changes, it will be open to the new operator to reduce services after a relatively short time.

"This would be a huge blow to many people who rely on bus routes.

"Residents in the Borders have already been forced to stay at home or use their cars by an ever shrinking bus service and I fear the latest announcement will just further reduce passenger numbers."

Hawick councillor Watson McAteer raised concerns seven weeks ago with First surrounding rumours that routes were at threat.

He told us: "First Bus managing director Paul McGowan dismissed rumours that the company intended slashing the X95 and other Border services.

"Now we are told that the formal consultation process is underway that will allow the company to severe its links to the Borders by selling the business to a rival company.

"Many of those I represent will be alarmed at the speed of this announcement and concerned that the rumours of cuts expressed a few weeks ago now look like a reality.

"This is a worrying development especially to those living in the southern end of the Borders who reply on the X95 bus as the only public transport service available to them.

"I have real concerns that routes may be cut and that job losses may result from this action."

Fellow Hawick councillor Stuart Marshall also wants assurances that jobs and routes will be maintained.

He said: "Many people will be quite alarmed by this news, not least the 100 or so employees whom I'm told are affected.

"I have been in contact with the council leader David Parker to see what the council plan to do to manage this worrying development and indeed to reassure folk that they will continue to receive an effective bus service."

A First Scotland East spokesperson added: “Negotiations on an agreement in principle with West Coast Motors have progressed rapidly and we have made stakeholders aware of this proposed agreement at the earliest possible opportunity.”