A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to travel on a prototype electric bus in Shrewsbury. This was a small hopper bus, designed to run around routes at high frequency but without large passenger loads. This style of bus would be ideal with some modifications for Ludlow’s town bus routes. Our buses must be replaced in the next couple of years as they approach the end of their reliable life. It will also be ideal for a new rural on-demand bus service for the villages and hamlets across the county.

It is early days on renewing the bus service across Shropshire. Plans are being drawn up and funding has been applied for as part of Shropshire Council’s bid to the government for Levelling Up funds. The bid is excellent but a lot depends on this multi million pound bid with a decision due to be made in October. It is difficult to see how bus services around the county will do anything other than stagger on and decline without government funding. Bus services need refreshing. They need a new image to attract passengers and we must ensure that where and when people need buses, they get buses. 

We need to kill the myth that bus services can only decline in rural areas. Buses should be our future not our past.

I have to admit I spent much of my very early childhood train spotting. There was steam in those days but when diesel became the norm around 1963 when I was eight, the magic went. I have seen people photographing buses and that might be a different hobby. But my excitement was stirred two weeks ago when I got on an electric bus.

I was travelling to attend the second meeting of Shropshire Council’s working group on public transport, which is currently discussing the future of bus services in the county. I went by bus from Ludlow, in my view the only way to go to a meeting on buses. If you don’t travel by bus, you can’t get to know how valuable they are to the passengers. You would not understand how many local buses act as a community service. The town services are communities centre on wheels including here in Ludlow. And it is also difficult to observe mobility issues which matter so much to bus design. I have developed neuropathy from the hips down and know that travel can be a challenge.

However, on my trip to the bus meeting, there was no practical bus connection to the transport depot on Longden Road. I requested a lift and was expecting a highways van to pick me up from the bus station. Instead, a prototype electric bus on loan to Shropshire Council for a week pulled into the layover bay.

As we travelled to and from the meeting, we had a lot of discussion on the bus design. Not so much what it looks like, but about accessibility, supply of information as you travel and mirrors.

The model I travelled on has two exits. That is due to it being a prototype. A working bus would have no middle exit and more seats. The bus can also be stretched, adding more seats in the middle. The battery storage space is huge, meaning the seats at the back of the bus are high up. But that’s great for kids and more able parents. And sitting on the back seat of the bus is one of the great excitements of travelling when young.

There is an information display to announce the next stop, both visually and audibly. Like all modern buses, the floor by the front door can be lowered (kneel) to pavement level. There is also the standard ramp for wheelchair users, though that has to be lowered manually.

The bus meeting was held under Chatham House rules so I can’t say much about what we discussed. But the future of buses looks good in Shropshire if we get government Levelling Up funding. Without that we cannot afford a total redesign and replacement of bus services because Shropshire Council has huge financial commitments towards the North West Relief Road and a new Civic Centre to replace Shirehall. But if we get the money, we are going to see a huge improvement in bus services. The aim is to provide a service that people want to travel on as well as need to of.

The future is electric. Some dream of hydrogen buses but for the next decade, it is unlikely that our county will have hydrogen supply outside major towns. Electricity is everywhere. Ludlow buses can recharge overnight at their Parys Road depot.

We need to test mileage. The nominal range of the bus I travelled on is 200 miles. That is a tad short for the 701 and 722 Ludlow town services, considering our hills (though they charge up when going downhill and when brakes are used). We could need a charging point at the Eco Park (the most decrepit park and ride in the country which of course lacks a single EV charging point).  

We also need narrower buses. Think King Street. The pavements in the Narrows are just 0.75m wide. Everybody has to squeeze in when the buses pass. The electric bus was three seats wide, not four. A bus like this would be a better fit on King Street. The bus was short and would be ideal in the winter but would not cope in the summer. There are ways of solving that, the most obvious being a dedicated 20-minute frequency service between the Eco Park park and ride and Ludlow Assembly Rooms, just stopping at one or two stops.

In 2013, we saw the demise of the rural Link buses, services that needed reforming not cancelling. In 2014, we saw the collapse of R&B services in Ludlow, to be replaced by Minsterley Motors who have since run an excellent service. There has been a nagging fear that bus services, most of which are subsidised by Shropshire Council, will grind to a halt.  

Now, for the first time since I joined Shropshire Council, there is an air of optimism about buses, including rural buses. The plans are good and well researched. There is genuine commitment in Shropshire Council to delivering them. All we need is for ministers to stump up Levelling Up funding. Fingers crossed.

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