New operator to tackle Far North route

© Northern StudiosWick man Aaron Wilson, who plans to start a new Caithness to Inverness bus service in September. Photo: Robert MacDonald/Northern Studios
Wick man Aaron Wilson, who plans to start a new Caithness to Inverness bus service in September. Photo: Robert MacDonald/Northern Studios

Stagecoach is facing competition on its X99 scheduled bus service between Caithness and Inverness.

A Wick-based firm is gearing up to operate daily return runs on the route after the summer.

Aaron’s Coaches has registered its proposed service with Highland Council and is awaiting the go-ahead from the Traffic Commissioners.

Owner Aaron Wilson plans to deploy a 53-seater on the route, which is a mainstay of Stagecoach’s Highland operation.

Since starting up the business 18 months ago, the 25-year-old has been doing private hires, including a daily contract to take passengers disembarking at Invergordon from cruise ships on day tours.

He has 11 buses at the firm’s base in Thrumster, just outside Wick.

Mr Wilson said yesterday: “We have been planning this for about six months and are aiming to get it up and running in September.

“I’ve already had a lot of people interested especially as we will be operating a more direct route which will cut the time of the journey.

“I thought I’d take a chance to start up a seven-day-a-week service which would leave Caithness in the morning and return in the early evening.

“If there’s the demand, we would look to maybe stick another couple of runs on.”

The Mercedes Tourismo bus earmarked for the route is 18 months old and wheelchair-accessible.

Mr Wilson also plans to buy a second bus which would be based at Invergordon as an emergency back-up.

The firm’s registering of the service with the council will enable it to recoup 70% of the value of the bus pass scheme and have its timetable displayed on council-run bus stops.

He said: “We’ve received really good feedback from Highland Council – they are excited to get another operator interested.”

Starting in Scrabster, its A9 service would go via Thurso, Castletown and Wick and make a handful more stops before arriving in Inverness in just under three hours.

The firm, which employs five full-time and several part-time drivers, has been running a replacement bus service between Dyce and Huntly for ScotRail this summer because of major engineering works on the rail line.

It is also keen to tender for Caithness school bus services when they go out to tender next year.

Its move comes in the wake of criticism of the latest buses Stagecoach introduced on its X99 service towards the end of last year.

Some elderly and disabled passengers and mothers with pushchairs have complained about access issues. The firm however maintained that the vehicles fully comply with the Disability Discrimination Act and meet all the required vehicle standards.

Stagecoach yesterday refused to reveal its reaction to the prospect of a rival operator on the route.

A spokesman said: “We will not comment on services operated by other bus operators.”