There is a tricky Catch-22 that hampers the provision of good public transport in far-flung rural regions like the Westcountry. More people would use buses to get around if the service were better – but it can’t get better until more people use it. And while services are few and far between and fail to run at the times people want and need to travel, no-one is going to be able to abandon the car and catch the bus.
That situation is about to get worse. The Rural Services Network is warning that further cuts to vital bus services are looming. Hard-pressed local authorities which subsidise many routes need to make further cuts to their costs as austerity measures continue. Those cuts threaten to have a “devastating impact on England’s rural communities”, the RSN warns. That’s true, especially for those people who cannot afford their own transport. But they are, in the main, those least able to kick up an effective fuss. As a result, a reduction in support for public transport is seen as the line of least resistance for local authorities.
This is not a new problem. Historic under-funding of rural councils which get far less – yet often have to do far more – than their urban counterparts has impacted on country bus services for decades. The free pass for pensioners was a welcome innovation and has been eagerly taken up by thousands across our region. But a free bus pass is only useful if there are buses on which one can use it. And that must be in doubt, on all but the most popular routes, as the cuts bite deeper.
As we have seen with the fragile rail link into the far South West, which was sliced in two by the winter storms, good public transport links need investment. This Government – and its predecessors – have generally been prepared to make that investment in big urban projects like London’s Crossrail and, before it, the Docklands Light Railway. They are ready to spend even more reducing the time it takes to get between two of our biggest urban centres, London and Birmingham, with HS2. But there is still no firm commitment to build any sort of resilience into the railway links to
Plymouth and Cornwall and even less sign that helping to preserve rural bus services even figures on the Westminster and Whitehall agenda.
Until that whole approach changes, the rural bus – a lifeline for millions of rural dwellers across Britain – will remain a Cinderella service.