Tuesday 23rd August 2022
Earlier in the year I reported on Kent County Council’s review of its supported bus services with a mission to save £2.2 million from the Council’s annual £6.1 million tendered bus budget. And that was before the impact of Covid Bus Services Support Grant/Bus Recovery Grant originally scheduled to end this autumn, but just recently extended to next spring albeit in reduced form.
The County Council has given a reprieve to its Kent Karrier network of Dial-A-Ride type operations but has confirmed the rest of the services will be for the chop in October including a variety of off peak, once or twice a week shopping journeys linking villages and hamlets with their nearest main town offering a couple of hours retail excitement.
Update …. Thanks to reader Darryl I understand the cuts were debated by councillors at a Scrutiny meeting last Thursday and the decision to proceed halted pending a debate at the next full council meeting on 15th September. Apparently councillors have “inundated with emails” about the cuts. Well, here’s another communication about them.
Over the last week or two I’ve been taking one last ride on some of these routes before they succumb to their impending demise, partly for nostalgic reasons – I love a quirky rural bus ride – and partly to see the social impact their withdrawal will have. Loss making in financial terms they certainly are especially as fares rarely feature (they’re dominated by concessionary pass holders), but it’s hard to put a value on the social benefits these weekly meet ups of regular passengers achieve with many otherwise living in isolation, cut off from other friendly faces.
Regent Coaches operate a trio of routes (541, 542 and 544) linking isolated communities lying to the west of Sandwich and Deal and north of Dover to Sandwich (Thursday route 542) and Canterbury (Wednesday and Saturday route 544) as well as Dover and Deal (Monday, Tuesday and Friday route 541). These are all ending in October.
Arrival into the destination on the 542/544 is around 11:00 with a return at about 13:00 and involve a circuitous journey around Kent’s country lanes to serve as many hamlets as possible meaning someone boarding at the outer end of the route enjoys a journey of around an hour and fifty minutes. But, as I found, that three and a half hours or so on the bus (there and back) results in some amazing social interactions and companionship.
I took a ride on the 542 return journey from Sandwich back to Deal and Warmer on a recent Thursday afternoon leaving Sandwich at 12:45.
Sandwich’s Guildhall Square was hustling with market stalls over lunchtime and soon after 12:30 I started eyeing up likely custom for route 542 as quite a crowd was mingling by the two bus stops in this charming area.
However it turned out most were scooped up by the 12:36 Stagecoach departure on route 81 to Dover and Deal which is a through bus from route 43 from Canterbury and the 12:41 departure on route 43 to Canterbury which is a through bus from route 81 from Deal.
Just before 12:45 the Regent Coaches Volkswagen 14 seat minibus pulled into the Square and twelve passengers, obviously pleased to be reunited after their retail expedition climbed aboard for the homeward journey.
There was much chatter as we headed off and it was difficult to know which conversation to eavesdrop on. I couldn’t help but overhear the discussion about one regular, not on board that day, who everyone agreed will be devastated when the service ends in October. Apparently she’s cut her son and daughter out of her Will in favour of an animal charity so they no longer have anything to do with her; yet she lives alone in an isolated cottage and really needs support and company. The overwhelming feeling was good for her to leave her money to whom she wants; young people have to make their own way in life; etc etc; but it was worrying to hear the thought she “might top herself” when she can’t get out because the bus no longer runs.
Luckily the subject soon moved on to more positive subjects before we ominously passed a horse drawn funeral cortege along a particularly narrow lane.
More positive vibes for the future came from one passenger who’d already sussed out the Kent Karrier network of community bus operated links (which Kent County Council have confirmed they’ll be keeping) “where you can ring up a day or two before travelling and the bus will pick you up” one knowledgeable passenger was telling another. Another overhearing that chipped in with her recent experiences of Kent Karrier which wasn’t quite so slick; “they can keep you waiting all morning before arriving” she said. Apparently the County Council has confirmed funding support for such services will continue from a more general public transport pot of money rather than the tendered bus services budget.
12 passengers had boarded in Sandwich which made the 14 seater bus feel quite crowded, especially as one of the seats wasn’t really that comfortable looking…..
…. alongside the wheelchair space.
Two got off in Goodnestone at 13:08, four more in Nonington at 13:18, one near Snowdon Station, three in Eythorne at 13:51 and the final one in Tilmanstone at 13:57 who’d been particularly chatty during the journey and pointed out the various sights to me, including his rather grand looking home where he alighted…..
…. then leaving just me on the bus for the next half hour until we reached Deal at 14:29 where I left the driver to continue on his own to nearby Walmer.
It’s a lovely rural ride along narrow country lanes…
…. in this part of south east Kent.
And there’s the inevitable meet up with a delivery van coming the other way – forcing them to reverse is always fun to see.
Another couple of routes for the chop are the once a week shopping journeys from villages between Tunbridge Wells and Tenterden which are not served by the seven journeys a weekday route 297. Both routes are operated by Autocar – route 293 runs on Thursdays and continues beyond Tenterden to Rye on the town’s popular market day, while sister route 299 runs on Fridays and starts in Tonbridge, rather than Tunbridge Wells, and only runs as far as Tenterden.
I travelled on the latter on a recent Friday with 10 passengers boarding as we passed through the various villages on route.
One boarded at the terminus at Tonbridge Castle with two more at the stop by Tonbridge Station – but only just made it as they sat in the bus shelter not recognising the bus as it passed by, being on loan from Farleigh Coaches to Autocar and branded for another route.
Luckily there were roadworks with temporary traffic lights at red just beyond the bus stop and realising what had happened rushed up to the bus just in time. Initially the driver wasn’t keen to let them on, already being frustrated at the long time the red light had been displaying, but being a once a week journey he obviously had second thoughts about leaving them behind and opened the door, making it clear he was far from happy – as did the two passengers too, which didn’t make for a very happy start to the journey.
We picked up two more passengers on a circuitous route as we left Tonbridge arriving at the large Tunbridge Wells hospital in nearby Pembury which again requires a circuitous route to reach and not surprisingly, for a once a week journey, not picking anyone up there, making such a deviation (costing about five minutes) somewhat superfluous.
One more passenger joined us as we passed through Pembury and then one more (Brenda – who everyone knew) in Lamberhurst; we then did a tour of Hawkhurst, including the dog leg through congested traffic to serve The Moor where no-one was picked up and by now 14 minutes late we continued on picking two up at Hawkhurst’s main bus stop where Tesco’s now stands on the spot where Maidstone & District once had a delightful small bus garage and finally Stan joined us in Benenden
Like route 542, everyone on board knew everyone else even though they lived some distance apart on the 90 minute journey and we finally arrived into Tenterden 14 minutes later than scheduled at 11:14 hours but no-one seemed to mind and went off to enjoy two hours and twenty minutes in this lovely Kent town before it came to return home time.
Meanwhile the driver headed back for a short return journey to Hawkhurst via Newenden and Sandhurst on route 292 with no-one on board.
I was in Rye on a recent Thursday and saw that day’s route 293 arrive which sadly only had five passengers on board. This is a big reduction from a pre-Covid journey I took on the route a few years ago with a very respectable full size single deck bus load in the hands of Hams Travel in those days.
One route up for withdrawal which is more substantial than a once or twice a week shopping service is route 123 operated by Stagecoach running four time a day Mondays to Fridays linking the villages of Biddenden, Smarden, Egerton, Little Chart and Hothfield with Ashford.
I travelled on the 12:39 from Ashford on a recent Friday along with 12 other passengers many of whom seemed to be regulars and knew each other.
Three alighted before we turned off the A20 to Hothfield village who also have route 10X as an alternative which runs between Ashford and Maidstone but the other nine are totally dependent on route 123 for their travel. Four alighted in Pluckley, four more in Smarden and one went all the way to Biddenden.
It’s a lovely route through Kent’s countryside including well used narrow roads, including by HGVs making for some precarious squeeze pasts which our driver dealt with magnificently.
… as well as motorists with the usual struggle with reverse manoeuvres.
These snapshot rides are only a very small part of the cuts being made to Kent’s bus network Kent in a few weeks time but they give an indication of the impact these withdrawals will have.
Furthermore, bearing in mind the withdrawals are off peak journeys (292/293/299; 541/542/544) there must be implications for the peak hour journeys (maybe school runs) the buses presumably also do.
Subsidising routes 541/542/544 costs Kent County Council a substantial £81,270 a year with route 293 costing £15,498 and the 299 along with the 292 another £14,498, while route 123 comes in at £85,627 so you can see why the cash strapped local authority is keen to bank a saving approaching £200,000 from axing these lightly used bus routes representing about 10% of the savings it’s seeking.
However, as I’ve found, bus routes like these are greatly valued by those who use them. I reckon a very rough ‘back of the envelope’ calculation makes a subsidy per passenger return journey of around £15 which sadly is probably too high a price, especially when it’s mostly concessions travelling. On the other hand up in North Yorkshire a recent report on how the YorBus branded DRT operation is going for the county council commented on its success in its first nine months with a subsidy per passenger of £17 per single passenger journey. But anything DRT is of course currently in vogue; boring old timetabled once a week shopping trips aren’t.
It’ll be interesting to see what happens at next month’s full Council meeting.
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