A new minibus service to link some of North Yorkshire’s most remote villages to key services in towns has been launched amid a warning that its future relies solely on the community’s goodwill.
Rural bus services are under threat due to spending cuts at transport authorities, but The Little White Bus Upper Dales Community Minibus Service has survived so far because it is staffed by a dedicated team of volunteer drivers.
Founded by independent Richmondshire District councillor John Blackie in 2011 and operated from Hawes, such has been its success that revised ‘Richmondshire Rover’ routes have started running this week using a new 16-seater Mercedes.
The routes connect the villages of Scorton, Moulton, Middleton Tyas, Melsonby, Eppleby, Caldwell and Forcett for the first time, offering a lifeline to communities left without regular bus services.
As a result, villagers are better connected to the market towns of Richmond, Barnard Castle, Leyburn, Bedale, Ripon and Northallerton, and the new shopping and leisure centre at Princes Gate Retail Park, Catterick Garrison.
Depending on the timetable, users can spend between 90-150 minutes at one of the towns before making a return trip.
Little White Bus Company also operates existing routes serving Catterick village, Tunstall and Scotton, however all these services will only continue to survive if people offer to volunteer in the future.
Coun Blackie, who volunteers as the bus service’s managing director, hailed the expansion but also sounded words of warning.
“We are delighted to extend our bus services to the smaller and more remote villages in North Richmondshire, and offer their residents the wide range of convenient travel opportunities to their key service centres that we have been providing to the deeply rural communities in the Upper Dales these last five years,” Coun Blackie said.
“However the long term future of all the bus services provided by The Little White Bus, including the new Richmondshire Rover, depends on the recruitment and retention of a large team of volunteer drivers, who can offer their help - from as little as half a day a month - to keep the buses on the road.
“Our bus drivers much prefer to drive people rather than fresh air around, so we hope there will be plenty of passengers hopping on and off their buses to keep them company.”
The new routes have been funded with contributions from Richmondshire District Council and North Yorkshire County Council, while the new Mercedes Treka minibus is funded via the Government’s £25m Community Minibus scheme.
By the end of the year a total of 60,000 passengers are expected to have used Little White Bus services in 2016.
The announcement of extra routes comes following comments from Tory peer, Baroness McIntosh, who claimed older passengers would pay half bus fares if it meant safeguarding threatened bus services in North Yorkshire’s rural heartlands.
The former Thirsk and Malton MP made the suggestion in a House of Lords debate as Ministers come under pressure to make more money available for threatened routes in areas like the Yorkshire Dales.
Earlier this month, the Local Government Association said councils could no longer afford to subsidise free bus travel on off-peak services for the over-65s and disabled, warning that pensioners will lose out unless Ministers face up to the scale of the funding crisis in rural Britain.