VILLAGERS in north-west Huntingdonshire were expected to be at a public meeting last night to protest at the impending loss of their bus service.

When operator Stagecoach starts a new service from Peterborough to Cambridge along the guided busway on July 22, the current 46 Huntingdon-Peterborough service will become an hourly link between the city and Stilton, meaning anyone from the village planning to travel south will have to go to Peterborough first. It will be extended to serve Sawtry Village College.

It also means the Alconburys' public transport links with Huntingdon and Peterborough will be severed, which led county councillors to call the meeting at Alconbury Sports and Social Club.

Stagecoach's managing director Andy Campbell was expected to attend as The Hunts Post went to press last night.

The expectation is that Stilton residents will have to take a bus north into Peterborough and then change there onto a Huntingdon bus which will pass within a few hundred yards of Stilton, a spokesman for Cambridgeshire County Council claimed.

Local member for Norman Cross and CCC deputy leader Councillor Mac McGuire said: "While we support an express service that connects Peterborough to Cambridge via the busway, we don't want to see this happen at the expense of rural villages such as Stilton and Alconbury. We feel the express service should be in addition to existing services and not instead of them.

"I have asked to see the patronage figures and for a meeting with Stagecoach to see what can be done to help provide links to Stilton and other villages.

"Although we understand that Stagecoach is running a business and this is a commercial decision made by them, we hope that by working with the county council and these rural communities a solution can be found."

Councillor Laine Kadic, who arranged the public meeting, said, "This bus service is a lifeline for many villagers who just need to get their shopping or for the use of other essential services such as health and education."

And Councillor Sir Peter Brown added: "This as another attack on rural service and rural life. The future of our villages will be very bleak if rural public transport is not protected.

"Of course everyone understands the importance of having a good bus service between Peterborough, Huntingdon and Cambridge. But it also has to be available for use by local people along the route who do not have a car and rely on public transport.

"Laine and I are determined to fight for, and protect village services and, in particular, ensure that adequate rural public transport is available to everyone who needs it."

Andy Campbell, Stagecoach managing director, blamed a combination of the county council's decision to save £2.7million a year by phasing out bus subsidies, a 20 per cent cut in the bus service operators' grant (the fuel tax rebate) and a significant increase in the company's own costs.

"We reviewed everything across the county when the council made the decision to withdraw bus subsidies, and this service was not viable in the long term," he told The Hunts Post.

"We have given the figures to the local authority. Whether they will do anything about that is up to them."

But the 46 is not the only service scheduled to change on July 22.

Hunts Post reader Simone Cameron, from Bluntisham, complained that changes to the 21 service meant her husband would no longer be able to get to Huntingdon railway station in time for his journey to work.

"We currently have 16 buses a day run by Stagecoach through the village," she said. "Importantly, four commuter buses to St Ives and Cambridge before 9am and four return buses in the evening.

"From the details I have been able to obtain this will be cut to two morning buses and one evening bus. The route will also be changed, doubling the journey time to St Ives.

"My husband uses the bus to get to the station in Huntingdon. The new timetable doesn't allow him to connect with buses to Huntingdon and misses all the connections with trains to London."

She added: "The daytime service, which provides a vital service for the elderly in the village to St Ives, will no longer exist.

"Whippet runs a daytime service through the village on weekdays only. Combined with the Stagecoach service this meant pensioners could go in on a Whippet bus and return a little over an hour later on a Stagecoach bus. Pensioners will now be forced to wait in excess of two hours in St Ives for a return journey."

Mr Campbell said the 21 service operated on the back of the St Ivo School transport contract that Stagecoach was not confident of retaining.

"If we win it, reinstatement [of the current level of service] would be one of the likely options."