By lobbying their local council and bus company, tenacious Pauline Vaughan and her neighbours succeeded in getting a vital bus service in Lancashire reinstated.
When Pauline Vaughan decided to start a community newspaper in the Warrenside Close area on the outskirts of Blackburn, she had no idea what she was letting herself in for. The first edition of the paper included an article about problems with the local bus service; within minutes of distributing it, Pauline's phone was ringing off the hook.
"I got calls from older people in the neighbourhood saying that soon there would be no bus at all," Pauline says. "They'd been given just six weeks' notice that the bus into Blackburn, which ran every 15 minutes, was being cut."
Earlier in the year Blackburn Council had sold the service to a private bus company, which had since decided to cut the section of the route serving Warrenside Close. Pauline was keenly aware of the impact that the cut would have on local people, as well as on the environment and on traffic levels: "At peak time the traffic is hell." So she decided to take action.
"I've got a bee in my bonnet about transport," Pauline admits, and it was lucky for everyone that the bee started buzzing. After months of lobbying the council and the bus company, Pauline succeeded in getting the bus reinstated once an hour.
"Don't give up. Bus services are a basic right. We pay a lot of money in tax and we have a right to access public services; many of us can't do that without public transport."
Buses are a lifeline
When the bus first stopped running, the council partly subsidised a minibus instead, but this only ran four times a day, it was often full and people with mobility problems found it hard to get on and off.
"The first minibus left at 9:20am," Pauline says, "So it was no good for getting people to work. One lady who used to use the bus now had to leave home at 7:15 in order to get to work by 9:00!"
And she was by no means the worst affected. "One lady who's unwell ended up spending £30 a week on taxis to get to the hospital. And another, 77-year-old lady gave me particular earache! She's partially sighted and very socially active. The bus used to stop outside her house, but now it dropped her some way away meaning she had to walk up a hill. I picked her up one day when she was carrying her shopping home, totally out of breath."
Then there was the single mother with health problems who used the bus to take her young daughter to school: "That was a tale of extreme hardship. The minibus times meant the mother was stuck in town for an hour before she could catch the next service home, and the daughter couldn't stay on for after-school activities."
And Pauline's own family was affected; they used to share one car between three, but the reduced bus service meant that they had to buy a second car.
Start a petition
The first thing Pauline and other volunteers did was knock on doors, asking people to sign a petition calling for the service to be reinstated. After getting 300 signatures she submitted the petition to the bus company, but the response was discouraging. "They wrote to say that the service wasn't making a profit. I could see their point, so I took the petition to the council. The council said there was little they could do because the service was privatised. That didn't cut much ice with me, because it was them who decided to privatise it in the first place!"
Lobby your local council
At this stage Pauline and her neighbours felt that her best hope was to persuade Blackburn with Darwen Council to subsidise the service. She found an administrator in the council who agreed to forward her email to all 63 councillors. Only three of them responded, but they were helpful: they spoke to the officer responsible for buses, who in turn spoke to the bus company. "We kept it at the front of everyone's minds, which probably helped in our final success."
But the council wasn't prepared to subsidise the bus and the local MP, Jack Straw, was unable to help: "I could paper my walls with letters from him expressing regret...!"
Unsure where to turn, Pauline telephoned Campaign for Better Transport. "The public transport campaigner was an invaluable source of support. I rang her a few times and it was she who suggested we go along to a council meeting.
"We found out that we could submit a question to the executive meeting in advance, which we did. The meeting was on a dark, rainy, cold night, but 16 older residents turned up. The councillors did listen to us, but they weren't hopeful and we came out feeling deflated. The partially sighted lady turned to me and said, 'What are we doing next?' Well, I had to go home and think about that!"
Talk your bus company's language
Pauline decided to write to the bus company again. She'd telephoned and written to the company several times, first targeting the managing director, "But after I'd given him half an hour of earache he passed me on to the operations director!"
The bus company's answer was always that Pauline's section of the route wasn't profitable, but Pauline had spotted a flaw in this argument. Instead of ending at the circular Warrenside Close, where it was easy for the long buses to turn around, the route now ended at a busy terminus which required lots of manoeuvring and where there were very few houses, so nobody got on or off. "I wrote and pointed out that they were losing money: it would be in their interest to go a little bit further and turn at the close, where there was a chance that they may pick up one or two customers."
That was the last letter that Pauline wrote to the bus company before they wrote back saying that the bus was to be reinstated once an hour. "I was stunned. I had to read it three times! They wrote to us before they even wrote to the council – maybe they were frightened that I'd ring them again!"
Pauline believes that her campaign succeeded because she presented the bus company with a commercial case. "Talk to them in their own language about commercial viability," she advises.
Fight for your rights
Now that the bus is back, Pauline's neighbour can get to the hospital and the mother can take her little girl to school. Pauline is still indignant that the argument came down to one of financial profit: "Whatever happened to the words 'bus service'?!" But her words of advice to other people faced with bus cuts is: "Don't give up. Bus services are a basic right. We pay a lot of money in tax and we have a right to access public services; many of us can't do that without public transport."
Learn about Campaign for Better Transport's campaign to Save Our Buses