Helen Morgan tables bill on improving rural bus services

Buses are the cinderella of transport. We hear a lot about trains, the inconvenience of delays, strikes and buckled rails. But we don’t hear much about buses. Yet there were more than four billion local bus passenger journeys in England in the year ending March 2020 before the pandemic. Numbers inevitably declined during the pandemic and have not yet recovered to pre-pandemic levels, especially among concessionary pass passengers.

Many rural areas do not have a local train service. Rural buses are literally a lifeline. But unlike services in some cities, rural buses have been in steep decline.

On Wednesday, Helen Morgan MP for North Shropshire, presented a bill to parliament with the aim of ensuring people living in market towns can access hospitals, GPs and other services by public transport every day of the week.

 

As Helen Morgan says, there is only one Sunday service in the whole of Shropshire, running hourly between Oswestry in the north west of the county and Wrexham.

Market Drayton and Whitchurch in the north of Shropshire are both in the bottom 10 per cent of towns of their size when it comes to the number of departures each weekday. The average number of departures in English towns with a similar population (10,000-20,000 people) is 306 each weekday, however Market Drayton has an average of 74 departures and Whitchurch just 66.

Morgan points out that Cornwall has 1.7 bus departures per 1,000 people on a Sunday, Staffordshire has 1.2, Herefordshire 0.8 and Powys 0.8. Shropshire is way behind with just above zero.

The decline in Shropshire bus services began shortly after Shropshire Council was created as a unitary authority in 2010 and services have since declined at a faster rate than services nationally.

Passenger numbers are used because data for bus journeys are incomplete for Shropshire.

During the pandemic, national bus passenger trips plunged by 2.5 billion (61%) to 1.57 billion. Buses services survived due to extra government funding, recently extended until October. From October many services are expected to be axed. Buses, especially in rural areas where journeys are often lengthy, will not only be hit by the loss of the additional subsidy but also by the hike in fuel prices. Passenger numbers are also down, particularly among concessionary pass holders.

I argued in evidence to the House of Commons transport select committee in 2018 that rural buses are a social service, essential for health and wellbeing and they should not just be treated as a means of getting from A to B.

Helen Morgan’s Bill will have its second reading on 28 October. Although it is very unlikely to get the government support needed to succeed, the Bill does draw attention to the paucity of buses in rural areas and the plight of people who cannot independently get to work, the shops, employment or medical services without relying on taxis, community transport and friends.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem councillor in Shropshire. He blogs at andybodders.co.uk. He is Thursday editor of Lib Dem Voice.

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15 Comments

  • This is good work by Helen Morgan on an important issue for many people living in rural communities. Was this a ten minute rule or presentation bill?

  • Good work indeed. I have an elderly relative who lives in a village in Kent that has just lost its bus service. They said ‘no one uses it’. They couldn’t, because after the lockdowns it was really unreliable, loads of cancellations, so they never knew if it would turn up.
    A taxi to the hospital/back costs £30.

  • This is important stuff. Maintaining, never mind reinstating bus services is an uphill struggle, and part of that is the lack of attention compared with other forms of transport.

    Often I see talk of bringing in cheap or free bus travel as a solution to the cost of living as well as the climate crisis, but that fails to appreciate that would benefit some communities far more than others.

    And it’s not just frequency of buses. Reliability becomes even more important when there’s only a handful of buses a day. If people don’t trust the buses to turn up when they are supposed to then those with any choice will stop trying.

  • If I have read the full title of the bill correctly, it would seem this bill would effectively transfer the control of routes and timetable back to local authorities – bringing the rest of the country (finally) back into line with TfL. An approach TfL has demonstrated works well…

  • Peter Martin 24th Jul '22 - 5:27pm

    If Lib Dems are looking for a policy re bus services generally, including rural services, how about working to integrate them with rail services as much as possible?

    Many towns don’t have a railway station any longer. It, or the whole line, may have been closed down. However, they will have buses and roads to link up to railway stations which still do exist. It shouldn’t be too difficult to treat these as ‘virtual rail lines’ and even have a common ticketing system. This isn’t a particularly new or novel policy but it does need a political push to make it a reality.

    https://www.modernrailways.com/article/bus-rail-integration

  • @Peter – Given the amount of new development (ie. built after 1960), I suggest we need to think slightly differently, namely mass rapid transit, which combines what remains of old railway routes and new routes that may be existing roads/paths and new build.

    However, we shouldn’t be blinded to some simple maths, these new systems require a level of investment several multiples larger than is currently going to the bus network.

    It is interesting to watch how the Hertfordshire Essex Rapid Transit gets off the ground; currently it seems to be at the idea stage ie. it would be nice to connect these traffic congested towns together with some form of hybrid bus-train-tram.

  • Nonconformistradical 25th Jul '22 - 10:42am

    “However, we shouldn’t be blinded to some simple maths, these new systems require a level of investment several multiples larger than is currently going to the bus network.”

    Quite. And they take time so might not make a contribution to reducing car use for some years. They won’t help isolated rural communities – who perhaps need minibuses – now – to link them to bigger transport networks.

  • Andy Boddington 25th Jul '22 - 10:44am

    Work on this underway in Shropshire but it depends on funding. More details on my blog https://andybodders.co.uk/2022/07/24/helen-morgan-mp-tables-bill-on-improving-rural-bus-services/

  • Andy Boddington 25th Jul '22 - 10:51am

    Remember the Bill is about the deeply rural areas and small market towns. Hertfordshire and Essex have a combined population of 3 million, ten times the population of Shropshire. We are in a situation where keeping any transit going is challenging.

  • I can vouch for Whitchurch losing bus services, the cross boundary services from (then) Tory run Cheshire East to Whitchurch, from Crewe, were axed by them c. 2018. Possibly a cynical move as it has less of an effect than if the route had been solely within Cheshire East. Removing at a stroke many services to remote south Cheshire villages.

  • Nick Collins 25th Jul '22 - 2:09pm

    by: A.D. Godley

    WHAT is this that roareth thus?
    Can it be a Motor Bus?
    Yes, the smell and hideous hum
    Indicat Motorem Bum!
    Implet in the Corn and High
    Terror me Motoris Bi:
    Bo Motori clamitabo
    Ne Motore caedar a Bo–
    Dative be or Ablative
    So thou only let us live:
    Whither shall thy victims flee?
    Spare us, spare us, Motor Be!
    Thus I sang; and still and still anigh
    Came in hordes Motores Bi,
    Et complebat omne forum
    Copia Motorum Borum.
    How shall wretches live like us
    Cincti Bis Motoribus?
    Domine, defende nos
    Contra hos Motores Bos!

    Perhaps, if Mr Godley were alive today, he would prefer electric buses.

  • I suspect protecting rural bus services is the sort of thing that looks popular at face value, but isn’t the sort of thing that wins that many votes. People say they want a local bus service, a village shop etc, sign the petition etc, but in actual fact don’t use them (because the other options are more convenient, and people in rural poverty are a comparative rarity so convenience trumps idealism in day to day life for almost everyone). And when it comes to the ballot box, rural voters base their voting decision on dozens of other higher priority issues that do directly effect them.

    The immense struggle for rural public transport originates from the fact that rural poverty is relatively rare, and the volume of people who really do need rural public transport is just too low to make it viable. In countries with real rural poverty in large volumes, totally privately provided and financed rural public transport is abundant and works well.

    I say this as someone originally from a rural area, who has never owned a car and has always relied on public transport from early teenage years. I wish it was a priority for more people, but from experience, it isn’t, even if people say it is

  • Andy Boddington 25th Jul '22 - 3:46pm

    “People in rural poverty are a comparative rarity”. 17% of rural households are in poverty, fewer than the 23% in urban areas but still a lot of people.

  • A very welcome initiative from Helen Morgan M.P.. Helen deserves congratulations, and as someone who represented rural areas for many years as a Liberal/Lib Dem Councillor, I can confirm Andy Boddington’s comments about rural poverty.

    There is much data on the issue of rural buses on the website of the Better Transport group. It can be found on http://www.bettertransport.org.uk. In a particularly well informed report (covering the period 2010-15), they recorded,

    “We have found that half of all local authorities in England have cut bus services in the last year, and since 2010 70 per cent have made cuts. These supported services may only represent 20 per cent of bus services, but they are often the ones people and communities need most, where no alternative transport exists”.

  • There is an acute shortage of bus drivers throughout Britain caused partly by low pay but often by having to work unsocial hours and deal with rude and aggressive passengers who seem to hold the driver responsible for all the problems they experience. Sadly when confronted with the problem of which services to cancel the company will often cancel the ones with few and sometimes virtually no users so that at least the majority of passengers can get a bus. Younger people still seem to be using buses but there is indeed a big drop amongst older people.
    Minibuses can be useful but on many rural routes students are the main users and it would not be practical to use a minibus at school/college times because there are too many passengers so the large bus has to do the lightly used off peak journeys which does at least provide a more comfortable journey for those with shopping.

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