Community Rail Partnerships have been the saviour of many rural branch lines. The closest the bus sector gets to something similar is in the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors National Parks where small groups of committed hard working individuals devise and oversee the operation of significant networks of weekend bus routes branded as Dalesbus and Moorsbus.
I visit the Dales as often as I can but the last time I travelled on Moorsbus routes was five years ago – on the last day of 2013’s summer operation. There was a danger it was going to be the very last day ever as the National Park had withdrawn its funding; concessionary pass reimbursement was rock bottom and no funding was available from North Yorkshire County Council.
Luckily the small band of committed volunteers who’d been promoting the network for some years took inspiration from the longer established Dalesbus organisation and set about raising funds to ensure a network could continue.
Five years later and hundreds of passengers benefit every weekend from the untiring efforts of just three people who in their spare time have managed to slowly build up an impressive network of routes which criss-cross one of Britain’s delightful National Parks.
Arriva North East, Reliance and York Pullman provide buses and drivers while East Yorkshire run two routes commercially which are included in the scheme. The volunteer team specify all the other routes numbered M1-M8, produce the map and timetables in a colourful and informative leaflet which they distribute widely as well as running a website. Some commercial bus operators could learn a thing or two from these guys.
They’re also keen on feedback and on my travels this weekend I met Eden, one of the Moorsbus team of three, who was riding the routes, handing out questionnaires, chatting to passengers and bus drivers. What a gem he is.
And what gems the routes are. Simply using the words ‘stunning scenery’ doesn’t do them justice. I sampled the M3 on Saturday afternoon. This runs between the market town of Helmsley and the Visitor Centre at Danby and nearby Castleton (both Danby and Castleton have stations on the glorious Esk Valley rail line on its meandering route between Middlesbrough and Whitby).
You travel for mile after mile across moorland steadily climbing until the summit at Blakey where stands Britain’s most isolated pub, the Lion Inn before continuing for many more miles back down again.
It’s along one of those narrow yellow roads with broken border edges surrounded by many brown contour lines and nothing else on the Ordnance Survey map so you get the picture of what it’s like.
I also travelled on the M4 which links Guisborough in the north on a more westerly route via Rievaulx Abbey to Hemsley before continuing to the Park’s other Visitor Centre at Sutton Bank a few miles west.
Encouragingly Sunday’s first journey had an almost full bus and observations showed the M3 with a good load too. I was pleased to see this as Saturday’s journey had only a few passengers.
The timetables include connecting feeder journeys from Saltburn/Redcar and Darlington/Middlesbrough in the north and York/Malton in the south opening up the network to a huge population. There are also handy connections between routes at key points in the network.
I talked to Eden about the challenges of running the network. Not surprisingly finance is the biggest closely followed by lack of volunteers to help.
The Government gives public funding to Britain’s fifteen National Parks. Eden explained, along with Dalesbus, they’re lobbying for some of this to be ring-fenced for public transport. The trouble is North York Moors National Park reckon they already do but none goes to Moorsbus, bus operators or the Esk Valley rail line. When pressed the Park admit the funds go on Accessible Transport; minibus/es providing bespoke services as needed. Bearing in mind all buses are now wheelchair friendly it would be far more effective to use this funding to provide bus routes for all to enjoy.
I understand Trans Pennine Express have provided financial support and there’s hope Northern will too since Moorsbus provides valuable bus links to a number of rail stations which skirt the National Park.
Private donors also provide some funding and this year there are notices on buses asking for voluntary donations bearing in mind the vast majority of passengers are concessionary pass holders.
And here, it seems to me, lies the main funding problem. Eden explained Reliance, operator of the M8 York to Danby route which runs on Fridays and Saturdays (a two and a half hour journey), receives a paltry 91p for each passholder journey from North Yorkshire County Council which passes to Moorsbus. Assuming they make a return journey that’s less than £2 per passenger. Compare that to the commercial price of a Moors Rover ticket of £9 for a day. Other routes receive around £1.30 concessionary reimbursement per journey. This is insufficient and unsustainable.
I asked Eden if they’d thought of withdrawing the routes from the concessionary scheme as they’re very much exclusively leisure routes and instead charge say £5 for passholders. He was concerned at the affordability particularly as the northern catchment area of Teeside has areas of deprivation with even pockets of poverty in well heeled York itself. I understand his concern but it seemed to me many passengers on board appeared prosperous, were well equipped with walking gear and probably enjoyed a not inexpensive coffee and meal out during the day. I think there’s a real danger we make bus travel undervalued through the concession scheme.
i don’t think people will be persuaded to give donations unless everyone is seen to give otherwise it appears unfair. It’s rather like me being the only person in my street recycling waste to save the planet. It’s got to be a more collective effort.
There are ways in which bus operators could help Moorsbus. Providing high profile promotion, helping to distribute timetables, make drivers aware of Rover ticket availability (my Arriva X93 driver couldn’t issue one from his ticket machine; it’s only valid on a small section of EYMS’s 128 to Scarborough) and train operators could offer integrated fare deals like Derbyshire’s Wayfarer. Bus and train companies could join the lobbying of the National Park for ring-fenced funding.
We also discussed attracting overseas tourists of whom there are many in York and many families can be found on the X93 to Robin Hood Bay and Whitby who might be enticed on to the Moors. This of course all needs money and time. Both in short supply due to the limited resources.
It just seems bizarre that a well used substantial rural bus network, including some almost full buses, in a large area of the country in a publicly funded National Park depends on three dedicated volunteers and some private donations. But long may it continue and more please, because it’s brilliant and I’ll be back, and much sooner than another five years.
Roger French 22nd July 2018