Monday, 21 August 2017

Only six weeks to find money for bus services

FOUR bus routes linking Henley town centre with its outlying residential areas must secure extra funding by May 5 if they are to keep going.

Earlier this month, Whites Coaches offered free travel on its 151 to 154 services for a week in the hope of boosting passenger numbers and making the service economically viable.

The number needed to increase by 75 passengers a day, about one-third of the current total, or five extra people per journey, for the operator to break even but  it only went up by about 30 during the trial.

Oxfordshire County Council used to fund the buses until it axed all its subsidies a year ago, meaning Whites must either obtain money from elsewhere or find a way to survive commercially.

Now Henley Town Council’s bus working group, which was set up to save the services, is to ask the council to guarantee enough funding to keep them running until April next year.

The council has already agreed to fund the routes until the end of June but if it won’t provide the extra money then Whites will have to notify Government traffic commissioners of its intention to wind them down.

The company must give eight week’s notice so the working groups has asked town councillors to discuss the issue before the deadline. If councillors grant the request, the working group will continue putting together a business plan which it hopes will make the services profitable within five years.

Dave McEwen, of Henley in Transition, who sits on the group, said: “The trial week was a bit disappointing.

“There was a slight improvement but we didn’t have lots of extra people coming on board. The key thing is to meet that short-term goal of keeping the buses running beyond July.

“We want to develop those services in the long run, of course, but right now this emergency must first be addressed.

“I think everyone accepts that if we lose this service, it could be gone forever. It would be very difficult to generate the momentum needed to revive it if it went under.”

Mr McEwen said future improvements could include extending the routes to cover Townlands Hospital, the Tesco supermarket car park off Reading Road, Henley station and the car park at Henley Rugby Club in Marlow Road.

The last of these could include a park and ride service with a new bus shelter. Mr McEwen said: “We can’t make too many changes at the moment because everything’s up in the air but if we can get the services extended then the focus will shift to identifying some serious improvements.

“I believe it’s crucial to keep it going for now, even in its limited state, but I’m confident that with the right investment we can ultimately build something better and more sustainable.”

Will Hamilton, who is chairman of the town council’s finance strategy and management committee, said the council had set aside £20,000 to fund the Whites services and had spent only £13,000 so far.

He said the remainder could be spent on direct subsidies or, alternatively, on marketing campaigns to encourage more people to use the buses.

Nick Bland, Whites’ co-director, said: “There was a slight increase in passenger numbers during the trial but it’s early days and we will have to see if it increases in the long term.

“There’s not much I can say at this stage but we’re reasonably positive that something good will come of this —we just need to work out the finer details.”

A survey conducted by Hudson Transport Planning, the working group’s consultant, found that 88 per cent of passengers would like a Saturday service and two-thirds would like more weekday journeys.

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