Sunday, 24 September 2017

Bus services will be axed without more passengers, warns operator

A BUS company is to offer a week’s free travel on its Henley services in a bid to stop them folding.

Whites Coaches, which operates the 151 to 154 weekday routes between Henley town centre and its outlying areas, says passenger numbers must increase by April or it will have to axe them.

A date for the promotion, which it is organising with the support of Henley Town Council’s bus working group, is yet to be agreed but is likely to be in early March.

Passengers will be given questionnaires asking how the service could be improved and the group is planning a marketing campaign which could include posters and leaflets encouraging people to use the services.

The group has also agreed, subject to full council’s approval, to appoint a consultant to find ways of ensuring the services remain profitable in the long run.

Oxfordshire County Council used to subsidise the routes but it withdrew all bus funding under a raft of cost-cutting measures last year, forcing all operators to survive on a purely commercial basis.

Whites withdrew its regular 145 service, which followed the same route as its 145C school service from Henley to Woodcote via Caversham but operated outside term time, in a bid to save money.

However, the company’s final payment from the county runs out in June and it says the remaining services are not currently viable. They need a total of about 75 extra passengers a day or five more per journey, an increase of about one-third on the current figure.

The company, which is based in Berinsfield, near Benson, must decide whether to throw in the towel by April as it must give the Department for Transport eight weeks’ notice of its intentions. The 145C is unaffected as it is still profitable.

Co-director Nick Bland said: “At the moment they don’t work without the subsidy. If we can’t get more passengers or get another subsidy from elsewhere, there won’t be a service.

“An increase in passenger numbers would be the easiest and most preferable solution as it would mean the buses could pay for themselves. We wouldn’t have to worry about external funding being cut again. We’re happy to make improvements if it will improve passenger numbers but we need to find out from our passengers what those enhancements should be.”

At a meeting of working group meeting on Monday, suggested improvements included an extension of the 152, which stops near the roundabout at Tesco in Reading Road, so that it also stops in the supermarket car park. Other possible stops included Townlands Hospital and Henley station.

A Saturday service was proposed but Mr Bland said this had historically been unpopular.

Patrick Fleming, of Henley in Transition, said: “We need to keep the service alive in its current form as it will be very hard to revive if we allow it to fail. We should stick with what we’ve got and not risk spreading it too thinly.” Town clerk Janet Wheeler said: “I would suggest that improvements remain a long-term ambition and we focus for now on marketing what we already have.”

Mr Bland said: “I think that’s very sensible. We shouldn’t try to do much at once.”

The working group has received quotations from three consultants of between £3,500 and £4,995 with a fourth to follow. It will meet again for confidential discussions and make a recommendation to full council on February 14.

David Nimmo Smith, who chairs the group, said: “We want to encourage choice and those services help residents get into town without using their cars, which will help with Henley’s air quality problems.”

Levels of air pollutants have exceeded recommended safe limits in Henley for at least a decade.

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