Thursday 7th April 2022
Congratulations to this week’s 31 lucky winners in the DfT’s Bus Service Improvement Plans lottery. Roughly half of England is destined to enjoy buses emulating what the Secretary of State describes as the “success of London” (which, by the way, confirms for any doubters the DfT really does suffer from some kind of bipolar disorder – check out recent critical comments by the very same Secretary of State of the Mayor and TfL’s overseeing of the Capital’s buses and their unsustainable finances) while the other half just have to throw their lottery ticket in the bin and get on with the job of cutting back buses as ever they have.
Interestingly many of the ‘Haves’ are already renowned for providing attractive bus services with a track record of growing the market so they look set to get even more successful with better networks and infrastructure as well as new ticket deals, more frequent services and enhanced information provision while the missing-from-the-list ‘Have Nots’ face an uncertain future. I’m not sure that’s what ‘levelling up’ was meant to be about.
Meanwhile the Campaign for Better Transport attracted more negative bus headlines in the main stream media this week having totted up the number of bus services withdrawn in England over the last decade and worked out this comes to “more than one in four” (27 per cent). Of course, such figures grab headlines but are always somewhat misleading as they relate to “live bus registrations” which takes no effect of changes to other “registrations” which might mean gaps caused by service withdrawals have been plugged.
It also makes no reference to how many passengers have been impacted by such withdrawals. Certainly not “more than one in four” if my about-to-be-withdrawn bus service travelling experiences in Kent are anything to go by.
I’ve been taking a few rides on some of the bus routes under threat in Kent to see just how many people might be impacted as that county aims to save £2.2 million from its annual £6.1 million bus funding bill so it can live within its wider financial means.
Interestingly Kent County Council were one of the 31 lucky lottery winners with a nice £35.1 million heading its way for its Bus Service Improvement Plan. But where does that leave its £2.1 million subsidy funding gap? Does it change things? Leaving villages and hamlets without any bus services at all hardly seems in the spirit of ‘levelling up’.
I highlighted the £208,000 saving Kent aim to make by withdrawing routes X1 and X2 between Kings Hill and West Malling and Maidstone in my previous blog on this topic, explaining how the regular driver recalled the afternoon journeys carried a couple of passengers (in total) between them.
Here’s a look at three more substantive routes on Kent’s Hit List currently out to public consultation. Obviously my experience is but a snapshot of a random journey or two so may not be typical of the whole service, but I reckon I’m not far off the mark of what a typical impact will be.
My first ride a couple of weeks ago was a circuit on Go-Coach’s routes 474/475 which run a rural circular (clockwise and anti-clockwise) route from the Bluewater shopping centre to serve the village of Longfield as well as the hamlets of Bean, Besham, Southfleet and New Barn.
It runs hourly on Mondays to Saturdays with the first journey leaving Longfield Station at 07:25 and then pretty much keeps going with hourly departures of the 45 minute circuit until the last journey leaves Bluewater at 19:10.
The route costs Kent £114,847 a year. The proposal is to withdraw the route in its entirety with no replacement.
Longfield is also served by Arriva’s route 423 every couple of hours or so to Bluewater and Dartford as well as route 489 to Gravesend every 90 minutes also serving Southfleet but other hamlets, notably quite a large residential area called Bean frustratingly only about a mile and a half from Bluewater – but not really walkable due to road layouts – will be left completely bus less.
I took the 10:10 departure from Bluewater which is a clockwise route 475. We carried no-one from the shopping centre (which, to be fair, had barely opened) and picked up no-one on the ciruit until we got to New Barn, just east of Longfield, where two concessionary passholding and empty shopping bag carrying passengers boarded. The driver was so surprised to see them waiting he nearly left them behind. He told me later he seldom if every picks up at that point. We spent a couple of minutes waiting time alongside Longfield railway station – it’s on the Victoria to Gillingham route and enjoys a half hourly service.
We headed on around the circuit to Bluewater including taking in the residential area of Beam where we picked two more passengers up.
All four alighted at Bluewater and the driver was telling me numbers are usually very low. He thought Austin Blackburn, the entrepreneurial owner of Go-Coach Hire might be thinking of other options if Kent’s proposed cuts go ahead – it was all the talk while we waited time at Longfield station. Reducing the frequency to two-hourly or converting it to a DRT based service were two of the options mentioned but of course, these wouldn’t save the main costs – a bus and a driver.
It’s not looking good for the 474/475.
Last week I made a similar venture over to Edenbridge to take a ride around the half-hourly frequency anti-clockwise circuit of the Go-Coach Hire operated town route E1 which is also on Kent’s Hit List with a stated saving of £141,363 from a complete withdrawal of the route.
The 23 minute circuit runs between 09:30 and 12:23 when there’s a half hour’s gap for the driver’s break and then there are three after lunch departures between and including 13:00 and 14:00. One can immediately see the route is fitted in between peak hour school journeys, so losing the off-peak fill-in will be something of a blow for Go-Coach in making the sums add up for the bus and driver’s full day’s work.
I caught the 10:00 journey from outside Edenbridge’s Post Office. The bus had arrived in good time at 09:50 from its first circuit and brought one passenger in. Two passengers boarded with me but didn’t stay on the bus for long. They’d both alighted as we headed north towards Edenbridge station (the one on the line to Redhill) – a journey which is possible on other routes serving Edenbridge including Metrobus routes 231/233 to Tunbridge Wells – with about 11 journeys a day – and Southdown route 236 (East Grinstead to Oxted) – with six journeys a day – including one at 10:09.
We picked up two passengers who boarded at Edenbridge station, one of whom got off by Waitrose (at the southern end of the town) and one went right round the circuit to the Post Office. We didn’t pick anyone else up.
I watched the next departure leave at 10:30 with one on board.
Bearing in mind the bus must be committed to other work at school times, unless that is under thereat it will continue, I wonder whether this route might scrape by assuming it’s marginally costed, but the loss of the County’s income for Go-Coach Hire at £141,363 might be just too high a price to forgo.
The signs aren’t looking good for the E1 unless Go-Coach bears the subsidy loss.
My third venture was on Monday this week checking out tendered bus routes based on Sittingbourne operated by Chalkwell which are currently funded to the tune of £313,698 by Kent County Council and are all on the Hit List.
There are five numbered routes in the package – 8, 9, 343, 344 and 345. These provide a network around the town of Sittingbourne as well as journeys to the surrounding rural area.
It’s not clear from Kent’s papers if all the journeys are under threat. Route 8, for example comprises three off peak journeys from the hamlet of Conyer, 18 minutes to the east of Sittingbourne (beyond Teynham) then across Sittingbourne and down to Borden 10 minutes to the south west of the town. It’s listed in Kent’s list as “withdrawal of six off-peak journeys”. It looks to me there are only six off peak journeys and even then that’s counting each return journey as two, which would mean the complete service being withdrawn.
I took a ride out to Conyer at 09:47 from Sittingbourne (no-one else did) but we brought nine shoppers, six shopping trolleys and two disabled wheelies back in, which I thought was pretty good going.
There’s a peak hour return journey to Conyer on route 344 but that whole route (along with the 343/345 is for the cull) meaning this hamlet will be completely isolated which I would guess will cause considerable hardship for residents.
Passengers from most of Teynham have alternative routes along the A2 or the train but Conyer looks like a withdrawal too far to me.
I did a circuit on town route 9 – this takes in an area to the north west of the town known in the timetable as Kenilworth Court before embarking on a rather twisty turny circular around the south of the town before diving down to a relatively recent up market residential expansion in the south east corner called Eden Village.
There are a couple of peak journeys to Kenilworth Court but the rest of the route has half a dozen hourly off peak circuits. I caught the 13:07 circuit.
We carried no-one. No-one at all. Other journeys I saw coming in from Kenilworth Court brought just one or two passengers in.
Sittingbourne was famous for being Arriva’s test bed for its first Click DRT trial. That failed, and sadly it looks as though the traditional timetable bus route in the town has had its day too. Sittingbourne looks set to be one of the first sizeable towns to lose its complete town bus service leaving just the inter-urbans to Chatham, Maidstone, Sheerness and Canterbury to continue.
The three rural routes 343, 344 and 345 will be withdrawn “in their entirety” according to Kent’s proposals. It continues “the service operates Monday to Saturday providing the only public transport for rural parts of Sittingbourne including journeys for schoolchildren”.
I took a ride out to Newnham on route 345 at 11:00 and to Bredgar on route 343 at 12:10. The former took a couple of women and their shopping trolleys home close to Sittingbourne School just about five minutes into the journey and a family of four all the way to Newnham, which is a pleasant half an hour’s rural ride south of Sittingbourne.
We brought three passengers back into SIttingbourne on the 11:35 return from Newnham.
The 12:10 route 343 took a couple of passengers a few stops south in Sittingbourne with one other passenger on board for 11 minutes to Rodmersham Green and then no-one for the next 15 minutes to the village of Bredgar.
No-one travelled on the return journey at 12:37 from Bredgar.
It’s not looking good for the 343, 344 and 345.
In my three excursions I travelled on bus routes costing the taxpayer well over half a million pounds to fund and it’s heartbreaking to see such poor use being made of them. There’ll be howls of protest if they’re withdrawn. There’ll be negative headlines. And there will be a small number of people left completely isolated. But half a million pounds is a high price to enable these routes catering for so few people to continue.
Meanwhile more rural DRT schemes are coming on stream this month thanks to the DfT’s £20 million Rural Mobility Fund. I doubt residents of Bean, Edenbridge, Conyer, Newnham, Doddington, Lynsted and Bredgar will be overjoyed to know that.
And I can imagine they’ll be even more astonished if they lose their bus routes just as Kent receives £35.1 million to improve bus services to emulate London’s “success”.
Interesting times ahead.
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