Saving a bus route is hard, and restoring cuts once they've happened is even harder. But when the frequency of bus no. 18 was reduced, Lancaster Bus Users' Group didn't let that stop them. Chair Jim Davies tells the story of how negotiating and working with the local authority and bus company restored a regular service and reconnected people to public transport.
For those that don’t know historic Lancaster, much of the eastern half of the city lies up a steep hill from the city centre. The area includes two beautiful parks, the Lancaster Farms Prison, the residential areas of Moorlands and Golgotha Village, and a number of more recent housing developments.
The area had been served by local operator Kirkby Lonsdale Coach Hire’s service 18 running half-hourly during the daytime on Mondays to Saturdays. However, disaster struck in June 2015 when, following a misjudged attempt to take the service commercial twelve months earlier, the operator reduced it to just five journeys a day.
The Bus Users’ Group’s first instinct was to approach the county council and ask it to provide funding for a replacement service. But the council’s policy on bus service support had now changed to one where it would no longer provide funding to replace commercial services withdrawn by operators – even though just a year ago it had been paying for a half-hourly service.
The Mysterious Missing Money
Through one of our members, a local councillor, we became aware that the developers of the new housing on the route had been required to provide a large sum of money as part of their planning permission to pay for sustainable transport initiatives – including cycling and walking facilities and enhancement of the bus service. However, despite the funding having been received by the council in 2012, this had never been spent. Our investigations into where the money had got to came up against a brick wall: the city council and county council blamed each other, and public transport officers appeared unsure as to whether funding was actually available to them or not. In an attempt to kick-start the project we designed our own timetable for the service and forwarded it directly to the county council’s public transport team.
Then the County Council announced that the bulk of the available funding would go towards a scheme to improve safety at a major road junction in the area, with the bus service improvement having to wait until the final cost was known and make the best of whatever money was left over. The need for the funding to be made available for bus services was now more urgent than ever. The funding’s original purpose – to provide regular buses for residents of the new housing as an alternative to using their cars – was being stymied by the reduced bus service and the ongoing delay in doing anything about it. Throughout the campaign we experienced great difficulty in getting a straight answer from anyone who ought to know, with letters and emails to County Hall frequently ignored.
The breakthrough came when we invited the County Council’s Cabinet Member for Highways & Transport to speak at our October 2016 meeting. He claimed to be unaware of the problems regarding the 18 bus, promising only to “look into it” – the classic politician’s delaying tactic! However, once again our Group’s political connections came in handy when our County Councillor member, Gina Dowding, asked whether he would agree to meet her personally to discuss the issue. Having been asked in a public meeting he could hardly refuse and Gina swiftly followed up by asking if a Bus Users Group representative could also attend!
The meeting took place in Preston’s County Hall and involved BUG representatives as well as County and city councillors from different parties and even our local MP Cat Smith. The senior highway officers present showed no sense of urgency towards the bus service and were sticking to the line that it would have to wait until all the other works had been completed and paid for. We pointed out that the whole purpose of making the money available was that the bus service should be improved at an early stage in the housing development so that new residents could take it into account before their new travel habits became established. We also pointed out that “someone” had been sitting on the money since 2012 and that the terms of the Agreement required it to be spent - or at least committed - within five years of when it was signed – a deadline rapidly approaching.
We were thrilled when the Cabinet Member then instructed the officers to make at least £100,000 available and to organise the new service in "weeks not months". The new £115,000 contract should be sufficient to operate the new timetable until September 2018. During that time, additional developer funding is expected to become available and this will allow the service to be extended.
Promoting the bus
We knew that getting people to use the new service was crucial, so our campaigning then turned to promoting it and ensuring it became a success. Lancashire County Council has drastically reduced its spending on publicity for bus services in recent years. We therefore produced our own timetable leaflet and distributed it door-to-door along the route. The contract was won by Stagecoach and they agreed to supply us with numerous leaflets that enabled us to extend our distribution area.
We worked with Stagecoach and the local press to organise a “launch event” attended by Stagecoach staff, city and county councillors, and the event gained significant coverage in local media.
Our efforts appear to have been successful. The new service was quickly reported as carrying more passengers in a day than the previous subsidised service had carried in a week and patronage continues to grow. The service now carries over 110 passengers per day. Further housing development is planned along the route of the service and the City Council has agreed to earmark future levies on developers for continuing support of the bus.
Once again our Group’s successful cultivation of good relationships with local councils, bus operators and the media has allowed us to bring our campaigning to a successful conclusion. The whole service 18 campaign has successfully raised the Group’s credibility and profile in the city and we have received messages of thanks from local people for getting their bus service restored.