The Omnibus Society Bulletin for South Wales and the West carried this sad heading for dramatic bus service withdrawals….24th July 2017 This date will no doubt go down in history as the day the rural bus was withdrawn from Dorset.
Herefordshire survives far better than Dorset, it would seem. This is in no small part due to the work of the small Herefordshire public transport team whose efforts to economise without too drastic an impact on service levels have to date maintained a creditable network within the county. The willingness of operators to critically examine their operations and implement savings, together with the continuance of their commercial operations is also significant.
However, the amount of savings that can be made without drastic service withdrawals is reaching exhaustion levels. This is evident when an operator starts pruning the commercial operations, as is happening with DRMBus on 420 Hereford-Bromyard-Worcester service. This is the thin edge of the wedge. What happens when the core commercial network begins to creak is any ones guess but it definitely points to the need for some measure of special aid for rural counties and rural bus services before the phrase ‘public transport deserts’ becomes reality.
It was the 1968 Transport Act which gave powers to the local authorities to subsidise rural bus services. It was the rural services that then came most under threat as the large bus companies concentrated on the profitable urban networks. Deregulation of bus services under the 1985 Transport Act tended to accelerate this by categorising services as commercial or those requiring financial support through competitive tendering for local authority contracts. The large companies abandoned most forms of cross subsidy whereby some profit from the urban networks was used to subsidise marginal rural and semi- rural services. Most rural services were then thrown at the mercy of the local authority. This has remained the case except the pot of money available to the local authority to support such services has dwindled to a mere trickle or as in the case of Dorset dried up completely.
In such circumstances what is to be done? Some will maintain that in a car borne society the rural bus is redundant. That is all very well if you have access to a car, but there are still a fair proportion of people especially at both ends of the age bracket, who are increasingly subject to rural isolation. 2016 surveys on bus services in eastern Herefordshire indicated that 74% of passengers did not have access to a car but surprisingly 26% of passengers did have access to a car but preferred to use the bus. Reasons given for this included expense (the effect of a national travel pass scheme for senior citizens), problems of parking and meeting neighbours and friends on the bus.
Undoubtedly raising the profile of the country bus can help, positive marketing, fares schemes and links with other rural services, retail outlets and public houses can all go some way to getting more people aboard. Let us support the Herefordshire Council public transport team in their official efforts. Rail & Bus give thanks to Alan Lewis and the team for including a reference to us in the county timetable booklet. RBfH is here to help in a proactive ways as best we can.