Council and operator squabble over blame for Hunts bus cuts

BUS operator Stagecoach was this week accused of acting hastily in withdrawing its buses from the Offords and Great Paxton two years before the subsidy for the service was withdrawn by the county council.

Stagecoach countered that, faced with the removal of the entire �2.7million subsidy budget over the next three years, it had to manage the re-shaping of what will remain of its commercial operations across Cambridgeshire.

In the meantime, users of a replacement community bus service, mostly pensioners, are complaining that they are being given too long to shop in Huntingdon or St Neots and have to turn up well in advance to be sure of a seat for the journey home.

It is the latest development following Cambridgeshire County Council’s botched attempt in 2010 to ditch subsidies as one component of major cost-cutting demanded by the Government.

Faced with the threat of legal challenge backed by the public transport pressure group the Campaign for Better Transport and a review of the decision, the council decided a year ago to put �1.7m of the cut back into alternative transport services provided through a new organisation called Cambridgeshire Future Transport.

It is that organisation that has brokered the alternative service for the Offords and Great Paxton, through the Nene and Ouse Community Transport charity, which runs minibus services and is financially supported by the county and Huntingdonshire District Council, after changes to Stagecoach’s 65/66 St Neots-Huntingdon service left the villages without buses.

But pensioner Ann Knowles, which lives in High Street, Offord D’Arcy, has convened a posse of neighbours complaining that the new service leaves them kicking their heels in Huntingdon or St Neots when they have finished their shopping.

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Community buses typically leave Offord around 10am but do not start the return journeys until 12.45 or 1.30pm.

“Nobody wants that length of time when you have to carry your shopping,” she told The Hunts Post. “We need only about an hour.”

And she claimed there was inadequate space on the 15-seat minibuses for all those wishing to use them, so that she had to be at the stop 45 minutes early to be sure of a seat.

She added that there was no provision for people who needed early and late buses to get to and from work, for patients needing to visit doctors’ surgeries or for children wanting to go to the cinema during school holidays.

“These are vulnerable people who need buses and cannot afford taxis.”

Fellow pensioner Joyce Jones complained that it was impossible to get out of Offord on Saturdays without walking to Buckden.

Their county councillor, Richard West, wants Cambridgeshire Future Transport to provide an equivalent service to that which Stagecoach abandoned earlier this month – including early and late busses that carried respectively two and one person to and from work at a cost to the county council in subsidy of nearly �11 each every day.

He said the county council had been prepared to extend the �27,000-a-year subsidy – �10,000 of it for the peak-hour services (one of the highest subsidies in the county) –until 2014. But to reinstate the villages’ Stagecoach links now after the route changes would cost �87,000 a year.

Cllr West acknowledged that he had not foreseen the effects when he supported the decision to cut the subsidy.

Stagecoach managing director Andy Campbell said the company had carried out a full review of its services across Cambridgeshire following the decision and in the light of higher operating costs and a 20 per cent reduction in the Government’s fuel duty rebates.

The 65/66 decision was part of a review of services in St Neots, and he had delayed implementing it for two months to give the county council time to make alternative arrangements.

It will also have proved popular with his drivers, who did not like the combination of the level crossing on the busy East Coast mainline railway at Offord and the narrow, twisting bridge network at Buckden Marina, which they now avoid.

“We had a list of [subsidy] cuts that would take place over a three- or four-year period,” Mr Campbell said. “We have to try to redesign and interwork services across Cambridgeshire. Where they were cutting some routes now and not yet others, we have had to take decisions that cover the best possible commercial service that we can.”

Accusing the county council of being “disingenuous”, he added: “We have a business to run. We can’t wait for the council to take decisions.”

But Cllr Ian Bates, whose cabinet portfolio includes transport, said he had changes to 33 Stagecoach services to deal with, the majority unsubsidised. The first tranche of subsidy withdrawals were due to take effect in September this year, mainly in South Cambridgeshire. Others including the Offords were scheduled for later years.

“Stagecoach has introduced new timetables on subsidised and non-subsidised routes, so the 65/66 has come into 2012. That decision has compromised our programme.

“We have been trying to work with operators to resolve these issues in a measured way. We want to help the community deal with an unexpected change to the route, and I think we’ve come up with a solution,” he told The Hunts Post.

The county council’s public transport manager, Paul Nelson, said he would be happy to discuss changes to the timetable of the community transport service in the light of feedback from users. He added that Southoe, which also lost its bus service as a result of the changes to the 65/66 route, was now using dial-a-ride services operate by Ouse and Nene.

46 service

BETWEEN 250 and 300 people turned out for a public meeting in Alconbury last week to protest at Stagecoach’s plans to remove its 46 Huntingdon-Peterborough service from the Alconburys fromJuly 22.

The company, which has recently expanded its fleet of guided buses to meet unexpectedly high demand on the St Ives-Cambridge guideway, plans to extend its guideway B service from Cambridge via Huntingdon and Sawtry to Peterborough as an alternative to the rail service via March and Ely.

Stilton residents also lose out on the deal by having to travel to Peterborough if they want to make the southward journey to Sawtry or Huntingdon.

Their county councillor, Mac McGuire, told The Hunts Post: “I can understand that Stagecoach wants to take advantage of the success of the busway, but what it is proposing at the Peterborough end is at the expense of villages like Alconbury and Stilton.”

He called on the company to increase its fares to compensate for its increased costs, rather than withdrawing services altogether.

The county council’s public transport manager, Paul Nelson, said he was examining the possibility of a community transport solution for the Alconburys, along the lines of that provided for the Offords and Great Paxton.

5 service

STAGECOACH’S decision to withdraw the extension of the Citi 5 service from Bar Hill to St Ives means that it is now impossible to make the direct three-mile bus journey from St Ives to Fenstanton between 3pm and 4.45pm in term times.

The service used to run hourly between St Ives and Fenstanton, and also provided links to villages such as Fen Drayton, Swavesey, Over and Longstanton.

With Whippet using the buses that provide its 1A and 1B services for school runs in term-time, it means passengers from St Ives must either take a guided bus to the park-and-ride or walk there to pick up Stagecoach’s half-hourly 20 link with Fenstanton 9which it also uses as a crew bus for the guideway).