We’re not great bus users at A to B. For decades we’ve used folding bikes with public transport, but that generally means trains and the odd plane. Our only regular bus ride is the Number 31, now confusingly renumbered X51 to integrate better with the X53 Jurassic Coaster. But the X51 is an intercity express amongst rural bus services. It links big places, fills to standing room only in the summer and goes relatively fast (14mph average). It even starts and finishes at railway stations, and connects with trains in a rather loose sense. It is, in effect, a rail service on rubber wheels.
Mind you, one sees the country buses nipping about. Usually they are little 30- or 40-seater jobs, and they’re generally blue, because our local network seems to be the monopoly of Damory these days. This looks and sounds like a local operator, but is actually part of the Go-Ahead group these days. The buses are either full of little old ladies, or empty, according to the tidal flow too and from market towns. That’s the picture in Dorset, but country buses follow a similar pattern throughout the land, and no doubt other lands too.
Evolution of a Network
The funding for these services is a bit opaque, but it used to be simple enough. Most originated as local buses run by local drivers, often as a useful sideline for the village garage, and the schedules were set long ago to suit local folk. When rural rail services started to melt away in the 1950s and ‘60s, the bus operators thought they were onto a good thing (beautifully played out in the Ealing comedy The Titfield Thunderbolt), but the loss of rail services tended to push rural folk into buying a car, and bus traffic rapidly dwindled.
Harold Wilson brought in a bus fuel subsidy in 1964, which rose to 100% of the duty payable until 1993, when Ken Clarke froze it, so the rate has effectively fallen since.
Since the 1960s, buses have been (briefly) nationalised, privatised, regulated and deregulated, resulting in endless turmoil. Transport Acts have come and gone, but the crucial one for rural buses was the 1985 Act which enabled local authorities to subsidize bus services where no commercial operator could be found and ‘where they think it appropriate’. This was ‘Toried up’ in the 2000 Act (yes, it was still a nominally Labour government) to stop local authorities from ‘inhibiting competition through subsidy’ and forcing them to apply the creepily Blairite criteria of ‘best value’ when making subsidy decisions.
The real shakeup came in 2001 when the same government introduced a half-fare scheme on local buses for the elderly and disabled, the scheme subsequently becoming free from 2006 and going nationwide from April 2008.
Bus Pass Mania
The bus pass scheme has been phenomenally successful, with some 80% of eligible rural users taking it up, but the annual cost in England had risen to £1.17 billion by 2013/14, or £120 for each of the 9.73 million card-holders. Of course, the political cost of introducing a phenomenally popular freebie is that no political party dares take it away again. There is talk of means testing to weed out impecunious middle class users, but the middle classes are a vociferous lobby group. Meanwhile, free-market types want to dispose of passes and subsidies altogether. Political suicide.
Surely all this free travel is good news for country buses? You’d think so, because the aim of the system is to increase passenger numbers while keeping the operator’s income broadly neutral, but the government doesn’t pay the full cost, and that has resulted in a considerable squeeze on hard-pressed local authorities.
Quite how the cash slithers down to local authority level and thus to the bus operators is a mystery to most ordinary folk. In England, the money comes from the Department for Communities & Local Government and is determined by a complex formula. We won’t get involved in the detail, but it seems the payments generally amount to some 45-65% of the fare, although Dorset is claimed to have the lowest reimbursement rate in the country, at just 36%.
In Scotland, the government pays bus operators directly at the rate of 60p in the pound, and in Wales the funding seems to be tied into the contracts for each service. Then there’s Mr Wilson’s fuel duty rebate, which has become the Bus Service Operator Grant, and again, varies area by area. Fuel accounts for about 10% of operator costs, which isn’t much, but on marginal, lightly used, services it can make the difference between profit and loss.
It’s clearly a complex and imperfect system. Popular routes are doing quite well, but the weaker ones receive very little from Whitehall, and the local authorities just don’t have the cash to top up the subsidies. Everyone seems to have a grumble, from bus passengers losing buses and routes, to local authorities forced to choose between buses and essential services.
Perhaps the daftest consequence of the bus pass/subsidy system is that operators have been deliberately closing marginal commercial services, forcing local authorities to put the services out to tender, then bidding for a subsidy to run something that had previously been profitable. With local authority finances under pressure, some of these routes have subsequently been cut back to one or two buses a day, or even one or two a week. The passengers all disappear, and a once-thriving service withers on the vine.
Finding the Weekly Bus
Dorset has quite a network of subsidised buses, but by no means as many as some larger rural counties. Many routes were cut back or lopped off two years ago, and recent funding cuts have put another 27 at risk, resulting in the Bournemouth Echo headline ‘bus services cut to almost 100 villages’. Even if all the cuts go ahead, the impact will be less than the figures suggest, because the majority of these routes are already down to one bus a week, but huge areas will be left without public transport, and bus routes rarely reopen.
Some of these buses have been basket cases for years, but many were popular until quite recently, with a number seeing daily well-patronized services. As with some of the rail cuts in the Beeching era, you can’t help concluding that they have been ‘softened up’ for closure in advance of the coup de grâce.
We set out to try a few of the threatened routes, but catching such irregular buses can be tricky. The nearest to Dorchester is the 323, a solitary Monday bus from Buckland Newton, south to Piddletrenthide, east to Mappowder, west to Duntish (just two miles from its starting point), then north the wiggly way via Holwell to Sturminster Newton. As the crow flies that’s a trip of just over ten miles, taking perhaps 20-30 minutes by car, but the bus winds twice as far, taking 76 minutes, at an effective speed of 8mph. Yes, you could cycle to market much faster.
Why should the county council subsidize this absurd service? Well, Monday is market day in Sturminster, and as all country folk know, Stur does a very good market. A single weekly bus that takes a somewhat zig-zag course to town can be an effective way of reaching the greatest number of passengers for the smallest possible subsidy. It may be absurd, but it is a lifeline for many.
Deadlines being what they are, we couldn’t wait until Monday, so we chose the 368, which runs every Friday from Sturminster to Sherborne and Yeovil via such delightful parishes as Pidney and King’s Stag.
We’ll come back to the 368, because first we have to catch up with it by using one of the more favoured rural services, the X11. This sounds like something that might dock with the space station, but it’s actually a rural bus service from Dorchester to Sherborne and Yeovil via Cerne Abbas and Longburton. This is an important route, with six daily buses, carrying school children both ways, plus the inevitable smattering of blue rinse ladies. There are four buses on Saturdays too, and like all the most important routes it starts at Dorchester South railway station, which has developed into a successful bus/rail interchange.
And so, at 11.55am on a Friday, we buy return tickets to Sherborne from the driver of the Damory X11 at the South station. No-one else gets on the 40-seater bus here, but ten board on the high street, although most are travelling only two or three miles to outlying villages, and by Charlton Down – 25 minutes in – there are only four of us left. This is one of the problems in rural areas. The routes can be long, but the traffic is often very localized, so the bus runs near empty much of the time.Other problems include carelessly parked vans, suicidal lorry drivers, and some very narrow bridges, hence the reliance on dumpy Dennis Darts and Optare Solos, small buses that would normally be found in urban areas.
Leaving Cerne Abbas, there’s only one other passenger, but just the other side of the village at the Castle View Nursing Home (it offers views of the Giant’s whatsit, which must entertain the oldies), two brassy young East European women catch the X11 to get home after an early shift. This highlights another rural issue – there are jobs in the countryside, but unless you’re quite well off, you won’t find anywhere to live closer than Yeovil, a 30-minute bus ride away. If the bus goes, Castle View has to put its prices up.
There are few villages between Cerne and Sherborne, so we get up a bit of speed now, rattling up to 50mph or so on the straight, but indifferently surfaced roads. At 12.58pm we reach Sherborne station, a useful interchange for Exeter, Salisbury and London, and there’s just time to hop out for a cup of tea in the station caf.
One Bus a Week
Unlike Dorchester South, which sees some serious buses and coaches, Sherborne is the epicentre of a network of rural buses, including the busy little 74 that visits such places as Thornford, Yetminster and Chetnole (all with stations too, incidentally), plus a few oddities, such as the 42 (Gillingham to Yeovil, Tuesdays only) and the one we’re hoping to catch, the 368, linking Sturminster Newton, Sherborne and Yeovil on Fridays.
This is on the danger list, or at least the Friday-only daytime run is on the list, but it’s not shown as being up for closure, because there’s also a very early daily bus used primarily by students, which runs from Blandford to Yeovil, but doesn’t come back until after 6pm… a bit late for shops, schools or college you’d think. Oddly enough, this return service runs out of steam at Sturminster, so if you were to catch it from Blandford in the morning, you’d have to stop over in Stur on the way home, and wait for the once-daily 310 at 2.50pm the following day. We’re not kidding.
With this sort of frequency, you can’t afford to miss one, but happily a fellow traveller turns up for the 5th February bus and confirms that it’s due. The 368 used to be a busy route, he says, with several daily buses typically carrying 15 passengers into town, but the service was cut back without warning. ‘I turned up one morning three years ago, and it didn’t come’. What will he do if they cut this last tenuous link? ‘I’ll shop online. I already buy a few large items that way. But it’s nicer to get into town’.
The web is an issue of course. With the likes of the big supermarkets delivering cheaply to your door, and the world at your mouse fingertip, is there really any need to go into town? Transport planners and MPs should try living car-free in one of these villages to experience what isolation really means.
In the wilder corners of rural England, village shops, pubs and schools are more likely to survive, but in this more suburban rurality there’s an assumption that everyone has mobility. My fellow passenger lives at Alweston, just three miles from Waitrose in Sherborne. But if this bus goes, he might as well live on the moon. His village shop closed several years ago.
At exactly 1.31pm, the 368 arrives carrying the predicted five little old ladies (unless someone’s had a coronary in Waitrose, you can safely predict how many will be on board), and we’re off. They’re a jolly little crowd, and you get the impression that the bus ride is a key part of the entertainment for people who live alone in rural areas. But they’re all well into their 70s, demonstrating how these bus routes have been closed by stealth. When the last passengers pop off, the authorities will withdraw the vestigial weekly service without a murmur of complaint.
At Holwell we hop off to make a call in the village. There’s plenty of time to walk to King’s Stag for the last bus. It’s two miles as the crow flies, and the 368 from Sherborne went there after leaving Holwell, but it took a 23 minute deviation via Pulham, Duntish and Buckland Newton. Yes, you could beat it at a steady jog.
King’s Stag is one of those villages whose strategic importance far outweighs its actual population, which can’t exceed 200. There’s a smart block-built bus shelter here, erected in happier days when there were several good bus services. Four routes still converge on the village, but the 368, 323 and 317 are in the one a week category, leaving only the 307, which runs from Sturminster to Dorchester at 07.20 every morning, with a second bus (Tuesday to Friday only) at the more civilized time of 09.40, returning just after lunch. The return scholars bus leaves The Hardye School, Dorchester at 3.40pm and runs as far as King’s Stag, before returning to the county town, and that’s the one we’re catching. Just one schoolgirl is left on the bus as it arrives at this remote outpost, 15 miles from school, and as she steps off she looks confused, then smiles shyly. Like the bus driver, she’s surprised to see someone getting on.
For children kept back on detention and (in theory at least) commuters working in Dorchester, there’s a final bus home at 5.40pm, which guarantees to go as far as Fifehead Neville, but will go the last few miles to Sturminster if you ask the driver nicely.
The 307 service isn’t dead, but it’s on life support. If the Tuesday to Friday bus were to be nipped in the bud, this would – like many others -effectively become a statutory school bus service.
The bus turns up spot on time, and it’s a smart new Optare Solo, noticeably smoother and quieter than the older buses we’ve caught up to now. In theory, someone might have popped out from Dorchester on the lunchtime bus to visit their auntie in Alton Pancras, but no-one else boards all the way back to the station. The service is advertised as missing the 5.33pm to London by one minute, but it actually arrives ten minutes early, so had we been travelling further afield, we could have made it to Waterloo by 8.20pm.
Any Future for Rural Buses?
It’s actually been a fun day. The country buses are quite slow because of all the village centre deviations, but the views are good (choose a back seat over the rear-mounted engine), and it’s a friendly world, as little old lady fiefdoms generally are. On a wet day, there’s a lot to be said for going into town by bus.
Rural public transport needs to be nurtured and encouraged, and by gradually lopping services off, we’ve created bus routes that have little hope of surviving without ongoing subsidy. For a government that is committed to replacing Trident for ‘around’ £100 billion, the cost of maintaining a few rural buses is negligible, but once they’re down to one-a-week, carrying less than a handful of oldies, they’ve more or less reached the point where it would be cheaper to put them in a taxi, and bugger the theoretical walk-on market.
There are other solutions. Some bus companies have taken their weekly market-day buses out of the system altogether, by describing them as ‘tour buses’, which don’t receive grant aid, but are exempt from the troublesome concessionary fare scheme too.
The spider’s web of bus routes in Dorset looks impressive, but outside the urban areas, only the X51, and routes from Bridport to Beaminster and Weymouth, Wareham to Swanage, Dorchester to Portland and Poole to Blandford do better than an hourly service, the level essential to encourage ‘turn up and go’ discretionary travel.
Another ten or so are offer three or more services a day (three is the norm) and of these, all but the Blandford to Salisbury service are safe in the current review. A handful of the remaining 29 routes see a single daily schools service, but most have just one bus a week. And if the council’s plans go through, all will be swept away.