The mood is changing on buses. For many years, rural bus services have been cut back. They are threatened with more cuts as council finances dwindle. Now Shropshire Council has said it will roll back some of the planned bus cuts after a consultation produced an unprecedented response from bus users. But the council still lacks an up to date bus strategy and a plan for long term investment in the bus network.
Bus campaigners are stepping into the gap. At the end of last month, the Foundation for Integrated Transport (FIT) has published a report on Shropshire Rural Buses. The author, Professor John Whitelegg says failure is embedded in the current system and change is now necessary. His report concludes:
“It is in fact very easy indeed to provide high quality rural public transport in a way that supports vibrant, healthy, economically successful rural communities and contributes to keeping young people in those communities.”
That’s ambitious. But why shouldn’t we be ambitious for the future of buses? It is time to halt the endless cutbacks and invest in the county’s bus networks.
The FIT report draws on examples of rural bus provision in Switzerland, Germany and Sweden. Taking these and drawing on the views of town and parish councils, Professor Whitelegg comes up with a picture of what an effective bus system could look like in Shropshire:
- Every train station in Shropshire would be served by buses that meet selected trains and provide connections to the nearest main settlement and to smaller villages and communities within a 10 mile radius.
- Gobowen train station will have direct buses to Oswestry and to the Robert Jones and Agnes Hunt Orthopaedic Hospital. [I thought it had these already.]
- All bus services would be seven days a week including train-bus connections and on weekdays the bus services would offer a one hour frequency.
- Fourteen towns would have high quality connections to the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and Princess Royal Hospital in Telford (Bishop’s Castle; Bridgnorth; Broseley; Church Stretton; Craven Arms; Ellesmere; Ludlow; Market Drayton; Much Wenlock; Oswestry; Shifnal; Shrewsbury; Wem; Whitchurch).
- A direct bus service from Bishop’s Castle to its nearest railway station at Craven Arms.
- A direct bus service from Much Wenlock to Telford.
- Clun (population 680) needs a direct bus to Shrewsbury.
- A direct bus service between Ellesmere and Wrexham and Ellesmere and Whitchurch.
- A direct bus service between Church Stretton and Much Wenlock and Church Stretton and Bishop’s Castle.
- Much improved service level and frequency from Much Wenlock to Bridgnorth, Shrewsbury and Telford.
Professor Whitelegg also suggests that ten missing links would be plugged, including:
- Ludlow – Craven Arms – Lydbury North – Bishop’s Castle – Clun – Craven Arms – Ludlow circular.
- Ludlow – Cleobury North – Bridgnorth.
- Ludlow – Richards Castle – Brimfield – Burford – Tenbury Wells.
That’s dream list. To achieve it, Professor Whitelegg says:
“We should abandon the idea that private operators acting in an uncoordinated manner and very loosely supervised by a budget-cutting council with no professional expertise in 21st century timetabling methodology and no legal powers to require integration (e.g. buses calling at train stations) can in some way magically produce a high quality, integrated public transport system in rural England. This is impossible and failure is embedded in the current system and system change is now necessary.”
The report recognises this will be difficult to achieve but:
“We can take action immediately and before the larger scale system changes materialise and begin the journey to a better future for rural public transport. This journey requires action and a change in political priorities in Shropshire and a change in the level of funding for rural buses.”
By way of example and using standard estimates, Professor Whitelegg suggests a service between Bishop’s Castle and Craven Arms would cost around £2,355 a week, close to £120,000 a year.
He also wants buses to run on “pulse timetabling” – that’s running at the same time throughout the day. I agree with that. Shropshire Council, though, is thinking of going in the opposite direction and is exploring on demand services. The trouble with on demand services is that they are not always available and are hard to use if you are going to work or catching a train. I also agree with Professor Whitelegg’s call for a change in mindset:
“The main thing that would have to change in Shropshire and more generally in rural England is a change in mindset. Rural buses currently have a very low priority in the thinking and budgeting of councillors and this has to be challenged. If progress can be made in the way councillors set priorities in quality of life, public health, supporting those residents who by reason of age, health or income are not car owners then we will see some modest progress in the prioritisation of rural public transport.”
Frankly, we have a long way to in changing that mindset in Shropshire Council. How many of its councillors regularly travel by bus? There is a danger too in seeing bus services as just for the vulnerable. (I can be accused of being guilty of this in emphasising that buses are a social service.) What John Whitelegg is calling for is everyday buses used by everyone on their day-to-day business. I support that.
We should stop thinking about buses as a service in perpetual decline. We should think the unthinkable and fight to expand bus services. That’s the overall message of Professor Whitelegg’s report and I agree with it.