Budget cuts are shrinking our bus services

Budget cuts are shrinking our bus services
Budget cuts are shrinking our bus services

Buses across Lancashire are covering 4.5 million fewer miles than four years ago, according to new figures.

An investigation into the nation’s shrinking bus services has highlighted the impact of budget cuts with less funding to prop up non-profitable routes.

Philip Higgs

Philip Higgs

Across Britain, the number of miles clocked has hit its lowest point in almost three decades.

In Lancashire, where the amount made available for bus services has been slashed in recent years, the total miles lost since 2013 is the same as 183 trips around the equator.

County Council lead for highways and transport Coun Andrew Snowden said there should be a source of optimism, however, with a number of services restored in December that will contribute to next year’s figures.

Meanwhile, representatives have warned residents in rural areas whose services are under threat to “use it or lose it” amid fears the falling levels of service will leave residents isolated.

The figures - collated by the BBC’s Local News partnership - reflect how funds for bus support services were cut from around £7m by Labour-run County Hall for 2016/17.

The Conservative administration, voted in last year, has since upped the available budget from £2m to £3m.

Coun Snowden said: “I’m confident the figures (of miles covered) will start to increase, testament to our election pledge that we have delivered on.

“It’s a big priority for this administration. I live in a rural area myself and I know how reliant communities can be on services, it may not be commercially viable because of the numbers using it or because of the distance the vehicle needs to travel, but it is still vitally important.

“We are focused on tackling social isolation, improving connectivity and delivering value for money.”

He added that county hall continues to work alongside commercial providers to identify areas that have the most need for services.

He said: “We’re continuing discussions with bus operators in some areas of the county where we think value for money can best be achieved by extending an existing commercial service and hope to deliver a number of further improvements to the network.

“The providers are grateful we’ve put this money back in, they want to work with us to provide the best coverage.”

The investigation, using Department for Transport information, found buses remain the most popular form of public transport. The total miles covered by both commercial and subsidised services in Lancashire has fallen by 17.6 per cent in the last four years.

In Blackpool, although subsidised miles have seen a 65 per cent reduction, the majority of routes were provided by commercial services, meaning the impact has not been as severe as the rest of Lancashire.

In total, the resort has lost 200,000 miles over the last four years, 4.9 per cent, according to the figures.

A spokesman for Blackpool Transport said its 2016/21 business plan includes targets to replace every bus in its fleet.

They added: “The key to our approach is that Blackpool Transport is owned by Blackpool Borough Council which means that we have a joint endeavour to offer a wide range of economic and social benefits. We are committed to building resilient communities and offering high quality but affordable public transport is a key policy.

“Using the current year as an example, in June 2018, there will be 38 new buses put into the town network and they will have free wifi, e-leather seats, wood effect floors, each seat will have a USB power point, a mobile phone holder, a bell push, there will be thin film transistor display screens showing advertisements for hotels and Blackpool’s attractions and the double buses will have three tables in the upper saloon.

“If you want to see them in operation we have 20 of these buses on the Preston to Blackpool rail replacement service. Our survey has produced a 94 per cent satisfaction score from the service’s users.

“We have developed award winning stakeholder contact strategies with a large number of communities to identify what is needed to give the best possible customer experience.

“All our front line staff have had training to give them the tools needed to help disabled customers including those who are partially sighted and suffering from dementia.”

“Our travel app enables residents and visitors to Blackpool to plan journeys, check the real time arrival of buses at stops, buy tickets and find on interactive maps the attractions they want to enjoy.”

‘We were providing a vital service but we are not a charity’

Bus users in Knott End look set to lose the village’s only current Sunday service from April.

Operator Catch 22 has been running its ‘Sunday extensions’ on the no 24 service since 2016, stepping in after another bus, the 2C, stopped using the route after Lancashire County Council withdrew its subsidy.

Philip Higgs, managing director of Catch 22, says the Sunday sessions have been running ever since, without any subsidy from County Hall.

The bus runs between Poulton and Knott End throughout the week, in addition to covering Fleetwood, Thornton and Cleveleys, but the Sunday journeys to Knott End are to end after Easter Sunday, April 1.

Mr Higgs - who said he is appealing against an order from the Traffic Commissioner to cease operations after he was found to have harassed an inspector - says he has reluctantly taken this step after recent changes to a bus route run by another company have hit passenger numbers using his buses, meaning he can no longer afford to run the Knott End Sunday services.

Mr Higgs, whose license is still listed as valid online despite a failed appeal last year, added: “We regret having to make the move, which will leave residents Over Wyre without any public transport on a Sunday.

“Lancashire County Council made changes to service 75 to cater for handful of passengers at Pheasants Wood, diverting the service via Cleveleys, at the request of Thornton councillors with extra funding from the council.

“The diversion of Service 75 via Cleveleys has abstracted some passengers from our Service 24 and as a result we need to make savings elsewhere to make good the revenue lost.

“We were providing a vital service, without subsidy, but we are not a charity.”

Mr Higgs says the Sunday extension on Service 24 from Poulton to Knott End will cease after Easter Sunday and from April 7 the hourly Sunday service will operate between Fleetwood and Poulton only, via Cleveleys and Thornton.

Coun Philip Orme, who represents Knott End abd Pressall on Wyre Council, said: “It’s very disappointing and I’ll support any campaign to try and retrieve a Sunday service.

“Unfortunately if Catch 22 finds it is not viable, and there is no county council subsidy, then we are where we are.”

‘It’s inevitable these cuts had to be made’

County Coun Paul Hayhurst, who represents Fylde West as an independent, campaigned for services to be reinstated after several in Fylde and Wyre rural communities were axed in recent years.

He said: “It’s inevitable that cuts had to be made because the way the government is slashing the grants for the county council, that’s the way it’s going.

“(Bus services in rural communities) are vital, people work much more flexible hours and students are going to college, it means cuts to services in the evenings and weekend result in people missing out. These students will be unable to take part in any extra activities, for example, if they go on past 5.30pm.

“It certainly puts people living in rural communities at a disadvantage.”

The Conservative adminstration now at county hall has recently said an extra £1m would be spent on bus services.

Coun Hayhurst said it’s a positive step but the amount now being spent remains significantly reduced from before the cuts hit.

He added that there remains a message of “use it or lose it” for those who want to keep their bus services.

He said: “For each service the county council monitors each one in terms of how it is being used.

“I have people who will come to me complaining about a route being under threat but they haven’t been using it.

“People have got to start thinking differently, use the services and then that will reduce the subsidy costs the council is having to pay.”

A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: “Buses connect people, homes and businesses, and that’s why we have given councils extra powers to work in partnership with bus companies to improve the service passengers expect and deserve.

“Long-term social and economic factors are affecting levels of bus usage. But to encourage it and improve journeys for passengers, we provide around £250 million to support bus services every year. This benefits people up and down the country, and supports the nearly 10 million older and disabled people in England who get free off-peak bus travel.