Thursday 2nd December 2021
Hereford is one of those market towns where it’s notoriously hard to provide a decent bus service that’s financially viable. With a population of around 62,000, it’s a similar size to Corby, Canterbury, Scarborough, Taunton and Tunbridge Wells.
It’s a typical English market town with a relatively low population density in a shire county (now a Unitary) where another 130,000 people reside. The city centre itself has long been pedestrianised but traffic crawls through the city’s upgraded central roads at busy times.
As well as the railway station about a ten to fifteen minute walk to the north east from the cathedral where some long distance bus routes depart, there are two bus stations.
One for country bus routes which is five minutes walk from the station towards the city centre, and a city bus station carved out of the rear of a centrally located Tesco store.
Wayfinding finger posts with walking times reassure pedestrians they’re on the right path and the country bus station is well signposted from the road (mainly because there’s a car park behind it) and has timetables at each departure stand as well as a where to catch your bus poster.
There are also maps at each stand showing the location of the city bus station and key city centre bus stops.
Herefordshire Council has been funding free weekend bus travel for some weeks and arranged for some extra journeys to run on Sundays within the County to try and tempt motorists to use the bus. I don’t know how successful this is proving but it’s set to last at least until next April.
I’d hoped to get to Hereford last Saturday to see for myself but sadly Storm Arwen defeated me with all Transport for Wales services suspended.
Six years ago in 2015 First Bus closed its bus garage in the city and pulled out from running the city’s local bus routes. These were taken over by locally based long standing coach company Yeomans Travel but the company recently announced it will be withdrawing from most of these routes at the end of the month.
In a posting on its Facebook page Yeomans blames falling passenger numbers even before Covid “as more people have bought cars and traffic congestion in the city has got steadily worse”. It goes on to explain with Covid financial support having ended in September and passenger levels at 50% of 2019 levels “this is not sustainable”.
In a swipe at Herefordshire Council the statement adds “there have been no discussions with local operators about bus priority or traffic issues until recently when the Government unveiled a package to local councils to assist bus travel”.
The statement acknowledges the Council is working on a new bus strategy including support for bus services but explains it can’t wait for that and must act now “to protect the future of the Company” adding the Council asked it to carry on running the services until April with no offer of financial assistance. “If it is not financially viable why would we continue until then” the post asks?.
What’s also upset Yeomans is the Council put the about-to-be-withdrawn services out to tender with financial support explaining “if we had been offered this we would have continued operating these services which would have meant no disruption at all and saved a lot of time and effort all round”.
All of this naturally received quite extensive local news coverage as well as high profile articles in the bus industry trade press.
Against this background I took another trip over to Hereford on Tuesday to take a ride on the services involved to see how poorly supported they are.
To make a change from Saturday’s aborted journey when I reached as far as Newport, on Tuesday I travelled via Birmingham using Avanti West Coast and West Midlands Trains returning on the Cotswold line with GWR thereby making for three different routes from London to Hereford. Fortunately all went well on Tuesday and I arrived in the city at 11:15 for a four hour visit.
The network of local city bus routes is quite complex to discern. There’s a myriad of different route numbers with some routes operating both way circulars, others just one way and others out and back.
There’s a map on Herefordshire Council’s website but I’m not convinced it’s up to date as some route numbers shown on the map don’t seem to operate and others take a different route and others don’t get a look in – eg Sergeants routes A and B.
It certainly reinforces the complexity of it all.
Most routes are short, rounding in either around 30 or 60 minutes and provide half hourly or hourly frequencies with vehicles and drivers interworking across the network.
The city bus station is quite compact with three departure stands and a small area for out of service buses to park.
There’s a long covered shelter with some seating against the Tesco store’s building for one departure bus stop ….
…. a rather nice structure built to match the Tesco architecture on a centrally located island with no seating for a second ….
…. and a rather dismal shopping trolley type shelter for the third with a rather uncomfortable bench seat and with broken plastic panels too. Come on Tesco, or the Council or whoever, get that sorted.
There’s no map to telll you which route departs from which stop so you need to walk around all three bus stops and look at the departure times but most passengers are regulars who obviously know the routine. It’s just newbies and visitors who are flummoxed for a while.
Buses are coming and going all the time in this busy location with both Kington based Sargeants which operates two city routes lettered A and B as well as longer distance routes …
…. and Leominster based Lugg Valley Travel operating routes 76 and 76A, also as well as longer distance routes having a presence.
But it’s Yeomans which dominates the bus scene in Hereford both on city routes as well as country routes.
Stagecoach also has a presence on its route 33 to Ross-on-Wye and Gloucester and TrawsCymru T14 runs to Cardiff; both routes departing from the station and call at the country bus station.
All Yeomans’ city routes have been commercially operated and it intends to continue running two of these – routes 74/74A and 78/78X although the former will no longer divert to serve Hunderton on its way to the residential area of Newton Farm.
Routes deregistered include 71 (Credenhill); 72 (Bobblestock); 77A (College Green and Bobblestock circular); 79A/88 (Putson and Redill) and a school route (74S).
I took a ride out and back on five different routes during my middle-of-the-day visit. The average number of passengers for each complete round trip was nine. I reckon at least 80% were concessionary passholders.
A single fare from an outer terminal into the city centre is £2.50 with a discount for a return. It’s not surprising the network is at best only marginally contributing during this off peak period and to hear it’s loss making after taking all costs into account. Based on my off-peak observations I doubt peak loadings are sufficient to sustain the network.
Not surprisingly the busiest route was route 74A to Newton Farm which took nine passengers on the way out of the city, but only brought two back in. The journey I took was one operating via Hunderton the section of route which Yeomans plan to abandon.
None of the bus stops were used in this section and what looked like a fairly long term road closure necessitated a diversion.
The route around Newton Farm was quite tortuous but I can see why it is potentially commercial for a low cost operator like Yeomans with its fleet of Optare Solos ideal for the terrain – narrow residential roads with twists and turns and lots of houses. The 74 and 74A provide four buses an hour between them which is the best frequency offered on the city’s routes.
I also took a ride on route 78X which Yeomans are keeping but this was the least used route of the five taking only four passengers out towards Rotherwas and bringing two back and then only as far as Putson. it runs half hourly.
The three other routes I sampled are all on Yeomans hit list – 72, 77A and 88 – and from the city centre carried 7. 6 and 2 passengers respectively bringing back 3, 3 and 7 into the city. With just a few exceptions everyone boarded or alighted in the city bus station.
I was impressed to see every bus had a box of face coverings available for passengers to pick up and use and indeed at one point a driver got out of the cab and brought the box to a passenger to help herself from when he noticed she wasn’t wearing one.
I was also very impressed to see Yeomans have an Inspector on hand in the bus station to provide information and reassurance to passengers and Bill was clearly doing a wonderful job of enhancing customer relations, especially at this time of uncertainty with passengers having read Yeomans’ Facebook post or seen the local press.
There seemed to be much talk about “the buses” and much uncertainty.
But the word on the street, well, in the bus station among staff, was that it’s all been sorted already with the Council awarding tenders for a slightly revised network featuring a 71B and an 81A and bringing a 75 back which I have to admit meant nothing to me but sounded reassuring enough, provided a map is produced to explain it all.
I understand Yeomans are short of a couple of drivers at the present time with two or three more leaving shortly so losing five rota lines of work with the tenders passing to another operator might be very timely. The rumours from the driving cabs were that the tenders have been won by Sargeants but no one really knows for sure as it hasn’t been announced yet.
My conclusion is Hereford Council and the city’s residents have done very well for the last six years with Yeomans providing a decent service for the city which is clearly appreciated by everyone using it. There’s a real need for an up to date bus map explaining the route network – I understand the Council used to provide a timetable book and map – if only that could be produced again – it might just encourage some new passengers, you never know.
Six years on from First’s departure there was an inevitability the unviable nature of the city’s bus network would catch up with everyone again and mean public funding would become necessary and not surprisingly with Covid Bus Service Support Grant ending that time is here now in here ford.
Next blog: Saturday 4th December 2021.