Tuesday, 16 August 2022

Henley Hopper to drive bus services back into profit

A PLAN to secure the future of Henley’s buses is taking shape.

The town council has been funding the Whites Coaches’ 151 to 154 services between the town centre and outlying areas since last April, when Oxfordshire County Council scrapped all its bus subsidies to save money.

However, it can’t afford to keep them going forever and has set up a bus working group to help the company make the routes commercially viable. It has appointed transport consultant Richard Hudson to come up with ideas.

Now the group is set to recommend that the four routes continue running to their existing timetables for the next 18 months.

During this time it says Whites should purchase a new bus to replace the existing one, which is coming to the end of its useful life.

It believes this will increase the number of daily passenger journeys from 106 per day to 122, which would inrease income from £62,409 to £66,505. However, the company would still make a net loss due to repayments on the new bus.

The group believes that in 2019 Whites should extend the timetable so that the services run from 7am to 7pm as opposed to the current hours of 9am to 2pm. The service could be rebranded the “Henley Hopper”.

Passenger numbers would then be expected to increase to 255 in the first year and continue rising to 389 per day, representing 54 per cent of the service’s total capacity, by 2029.

The route should turn its first profit of £6,125 in 2022/23 and make a similar amount each year thereafter.

Mr Hudson says this would be an “excellent service” for the town and the early losses could be mitigated through statutory contributions from developers building new houses in the town. Whites believes it would need a subsidy of £18,000 in the first year, which could gradually be scaled back, though Mr Hudson says it would only need £8,068. This would be subject to further discussion.

The group ruled out an immediate expansion of the timetable as Whites would no longer be able to offer its school bus services using the same vehicle and this could cause disruption.

It has also agreed to investigate the possibility of introducing electric or gas-powered buses in years to come. This could involve another operator like Reading Buses, which has a gas fleet, taking over the service.

The group hopes to compile a formal business plan before the end of the year, when the council will be reviewing its subsidy. This will also include ideas for marketing campaigns to attract more customers. Mr Hudson said: “Our growth predictions are optimistic and will require a lot of hard work from everyone involved but they are sustainable and would make the service viable within four or five years, or possibly even a little sooner.

“A new bus will look better and be cleaner, more comfortable and more reliable than the existing one, while it’s generally accepted in the industry that doubling your level of service increases passenger numbers by about 40 per cent.

“We shouldn’t be too negative about what we’ve already got as our surveys show people like it and don’t want to lose it.”

Councillor Stefan Gawrysiak said: “We need to get this done as quickly as possible so that we’ve got something ready to go by the New Year.

“We should be as ambitious as possible in looking for a solution.”

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