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Some journeys extend to meet the ferry at Rhubodach. In the background, another Optare Solo waits to take passengers onwards. JONATHAN WELCH











Jonathan Welch speaks to Allan Smith about West Coast Motors’ operations on the Isle of Bute

West Coast Motors is a well-known name among both enthusiasts and transport professionals, its operating area covering a large swathe of southern and western Scotland. Part of the Craig of Campbeltown group, it can trace its heritage back to 1919 when Jack Craig arrived in Campbeltown after serving as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War. In partnership with brothers William and David, he opened a garage and started providing passenger transport services.

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From little acorns, as the saying goes, do big trees grow. In this case, that growth has brought a fleet of around 270 buses and 600 staff. The growth of the business throughout the intervening years is somewhat outside the scope of this feature however. We will skip forwards to the early years of the new millennium, 2004 to be precise, and resume the story with the take over by West Coast Motors of Stagecoach’s operations in Argyll and Bute, which included those on the Isle of Bute itself as well as across the water on the Cowal peninsula on the Scottish mainland. The operations are run from depots in Dunoon for Cowal services and Port Bannatyne, to the north of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute.

A few weeks ago, we reported on the open-top service giving tourists a taste of local life on Bute. This time, we turn our attention to the more mundane, though no less interesting, topic of service work.

Port Bannatyne itself is part of the northern expansion of the island’s main town, Rothesay, hugging the coast in line with people’s desires to build and live along the picturesque coastline as the island grew in population and popularity in the early part of the last century.
The bus depot sits on High Road, the main thoroughfare in what is a largely residential area, and consists of a two-storey office and administration building, built in stone in a local style, plus a garage building. This consists of a brick-built main shed with single-span roof used for parking and maintenance, on the end of which is a lower building in matching style with three hipped roofs atop workshop and store space. The office building was constructed in the early 20th century, whilst the main garage dates from the opening of the horse-drawn tramway in 1879. Electrified in 1902, the tramway survived until closure in 1936, when services switched to motorbus operation. Remarkably, some 85 years after they last served their purpose, the tramway rails are still in situ and visible, both within the garage and two lines in the outdoor parking area to the rear.

Rothesay’s Guildford Square is the town’s main bus interchange. The buses, and the post office behind, are both long-standing and vital parts of the island community. JONATHAN WELCH











Island operations

I spoke to Bute’s depot manager Allan Smith to learn more about bus operations on this part of the West Coast Motors network – a part which it would be easy to call ‘remote’ and ‘isolated’ although in reality despite being on an island, it is neither particularly remote nor very isolated, with two frequent ferry routes linking it to the mainland at Colintraive and Wemyss Bay.

Speaking the week before Scottish schools returned from their summer break, Allan explained a little more about the depot’s operations. “West Coast Motors has operated the depot for nearly 20 years now. It’s been through various companies, my dad was a mechanic here for 35 years. At the moment we’re running non-school day services. We operate a five-shift pattern during the week. Everything was disrupted by Covid-19, and we only brought back a later bus in July. We call it the backshift bus, and it was quite popular with people going to various destinations such as bingo and bowls clubs, but with those venues and pubs and restaurants closing there wasn’t a demand for it. We brought that back with the lifting of restrictions. Our policy has been that if there’s a demand for a service, I’ll report it up to the managers and they’ll look at the viability. Because there was a demand for a later bus, we brought it back although it currently finishes an hour earlier in line with venue opening times.

“On a weekend, we run five shifts on a Saturday including a back-shift, and two shifts on a Sunday. We don’t run as late on a Sunday, it finishes around 2000hrs. We have never had a back shift on Sundays, but we provide a 12-hour service between the two buses. A lot of what we do is dependant on the ‘hot-spots’ on the island: Kilchattan Bay at the south end, and Ettrick Bay in the north. During periods of good weather the south end is particularly popular with groups of walkers. They come over on the ferry, and we’ve tied services in as much as possible with ferry services. We can get groups of 12 or more who spend the day walking the West Highland Way or around the south of the island. Ettrick Bay is more of a family-friendly beach so we have large numbers of visitors and locals who go there. It’s popular as the beach is easily accessible and there’s a café.”

Optare Solo YJ14 BAA waits to turn around at Rhubodach ferry slipway and return to Rothesay. JONATHAN WELCH










The basic weekday service pattern sees routes 90 and 490 serving the ‘trunk’ route between Ettrick Bay and Kilchattan Bay via Rothesay, with some journeys instead going to Rhubodach in the north to serve the small ferry pier there. Journeys to and from the outer termini are approximately hourly, with additional short journeys focusing on Rothesay to cater for additional peak-time and school-day demand. At present, due to Covid-19 changes, routes 477 and 479 are suspended, meaning that there are no bus services which cross via the 4-minute ferry ride to the mainland, passengers having to travel as foot passengers and board another bus at the Colintraive side.

Local services 491 and 492 serve the town of Rothesay itself, with one bus operating first a clockwise (491) journey, then an anti-clockwise (492) journey via the same route. Combined, they provide a 30-minute departure frequency from the main stops at Rothesay’s Guildford Square, the town’s main interchange for buses and ferries. These journeys are supplemented by the less frequent 488 which operates a loop taking it further to the south-east of the town. On Sundays, route 493 serves the main north-south route and loops around the town on its way.
At first glance, the timetable appears complicated, with the large number of schoolday and non-schoolday services, but in reality follows a fairly basic pattern which manages to serve most needs with a small number of routes and buses.

“We serve all parts of the island,” continued Allan. “People who work off the island use that ferry if they’re working in Dunoon or parts of Argyll. We used to have services where our vehicles went off the island and served the schools, and there was a connecting service for the grammar school in Dunoon. With the pandemic we’ve ceased going off the island but we still marry up the services at the Colintraive end.

“Quite a large part of our operation is private hires. We’re seeing more and more demand for weddings, and at the moment we’re arranging for cruise ships that anchor in the bay. The passengers generally want to go to Mount Stuart House. We pick them up from the pier – sometimes the ship will dock at Rothesay pier but for larger boats they tender boats carry people in.”

An Enviro200 waits to leave Rothesay on a short journey to Port Banntyne. In front, the island’s open-top tour loads for one of its four-times-a-day trips around the island. JONATHAN WELCH













“We’re running with seven buses at the moment, mostly Enviros and some Optares. We use the Optares on the town service because we need something small, and the Enviros are normally on the ‘shore to shore’ run from Ettrick Bay to Kilchattan. We did have a double-decker before for the school service, but the numbers have gone down now and we can cope with just a single decker. Usually we have more but we provide for other depots in times of need. We have one away in Glasgow just now. We try to operate with the number we need for services plus two spares, just in case. If we went back to pre-pandemic levels, the fleet would need to go up by at least one as we need something to go ‘over the water’ as we call it. We’ve also got the open-topper which we can use for hires if it is suitable.” (For an account of the open-top operation, see issue 1488).

Most day to day maintenence work is carried out on the island. “The only things we send them away for are things like tacho calibration or major work such as wiring. We have one away down in Galashiels having the flooring re-done. We’re pretty self-sufficient. We have a close relationship with Dunoon depot, which is the closest. We can phone them if we need a part such as a filter that we don’t have and vice versa. To get it down from Glasgow would maybe take a day longer. In my time here we’ve never had any problems where we’ve not been able to run a service or had to request a vehicle at short notice from elsewhere.”

The heritage of the depot and operations is not forgotten either: “You can still find artefacts other than the tram lines. Things like conductors badges have turned up, and other reminders of the depot’s long history,” added Allan. “The office is a listed building. It’s quite a grand building for what it is. We often get people coming in asking to take pictures. The old tramway ran from Rothesay to Ettrick Bay. Around ten years ago they cleared the route and made it into a walk. It’s about two and a half miles from outside Port Bannatyne to Ettrick Bay, on a safe path between the road and the fields.”

Bute Depot Manager Allan Smith in front of one of the operator’s Optare Solos in Rothesay. JONATHAN WELCH











Key links

Unsurprisingly in an island community, there are a small number of key destinations that people will always need to get to. People going to and from the Rothesay-Wemyss Bay ferry is an important flow, Allan said, especially among older residents who can use their concession pass on the ferry to go food shopping on the mainland. Opportunities for grocery shopping on the island are limited, with two branches of the Co-Op providing the majority of the market. The health centre is of course another one, and the local cheese factory another. “The cheese factory, Bute Island Foods, is a big employer,” he continued, “Five or six years ago it employed maybe 20 people, now it is about 150 across a number of sites. And our early bus often takes a couple of farmers to their work. We take staff to and from Mount Stuart House too.”


Turning to the issue of staffing, Allan continued: “We have 14 staff here, 15 including myself. That is made up of 10 drivers, two mechanics, a cleaner and a shunter.” Staff turnover on the island is pretty low, he added. “We have guys who have been here over 20 years. The two newer drivers started out as shunters, so there’s always scope for progression within the company. We’ve just taken on another new driver, and that came about for a couple of reasons. One driver was taking planned retirement. We also have what we call ‘as and when’ drivers, and one of those decided he wanted a change of lifestyle. The driver who was retiring was due to go travelling across Canada.

“Obviously with Covid-19 he wasn’t able to go, and we had some duties to cover so I asked him if he would come in and cover them. That frees me up to do other things. We have a good team here. We have to be. It’s not like a depot on the mainland where we could pull very easily from another depot. I’m conscious that we ask drivers quite a lot to give up their time, myself included. If all else fails, I’ll do it, whether it’s shunting, cleaning or driving. I see it as part of my responsibility here that you have to step up to the plate where it’s required. I say to all the staff, my door is only closed if there’s a draught. We’re all equal, and it fosters quite a good team attitude. We’ve all got a very good relationship. The social side of things – before Covid-19 – is very good too. At Christmas the company gave us an allowance to go and buy a small present for every member of staff, such as a box of chocolates.

“We don’t have a high turnover, people don’t tend to try it for a few months and decide they don’t like it. We even get people who go and come back. I did that myself. I left the army in 2015, I drove here for three years but we had a child. My wife worked in the Victoria Hotel on the island, and because we were both in the service industry it became quite difficult. I left but maintained a good relationship with the company. I stayed in touch and when this controller’s job became available in October the previous guy contacted me and asked if I’d like to go for it. I was delighted to come back. This is a great job, the whole company’s very good, and its an island so especially after the tourist season is over, you know 80-90% of your passengers. In the summer it can be busy, which is great as well, you get to meet so many people, but you do get a real sense of community. We have a good relationship with people in all the areas we go to, we don’t get complaints about buses going past people’s house or anything like that. People know the bus routes and will give way to us and give you a wave. Last year our staff were out delivering food parcels during the worst of the pandemic. We only had two buses running at time, and the furlough scheme had kicked in by then so most were at home, but we kept in touch with each other and with the island.
“There’s a lot of the personal touch with passengers as well, within what’s safe. We know where they want to go, we’ll help them on and off, and you sometimes get a chocolate biscuit in return! We give our best and you get that back.”

The office is a listed building. The height of the shed doors is a reminder of its origins as a tram depot. JONATHAN WELCH











Tramway rails are still extant at the rear of the depot too. JONATHAN WELCH











ADL Enviro200 MX12 DYP and Optare Solo MX57 UPF inside the depot at Port Bannatyne. JONATHAN WELCH












Inside the depot, the original tram rails are still visible. A portable bus wash is used, and there are facilities for day-to-day maintenance. JONATHAN WELCH