IMAGINE a remote railway station in the heart of a National Park on a summer Sunday morning. A train arrives, and 20 walkers alight from the train and head for a waiting bus to take them deeper into the National Park. Imagine a small country market town at around 11am on that same Sunday, when three buses arrive from different nearby large towns.
About 20 people get off to change buses, all holding through tickets or passes, to head for different parts of the National Park, perhaps joining one of the guided walks especially provided for bus passengers.
Where is this idyllic country of fully-integrated visitor transport? Germany? Switzerland? Austria?
In fact this is the Yorkshire Dales on any Sunday or Bank Holiday between Easter and the end of October, and the network is called DalesBus.
Little wonder this service is regarded as a boon by local people, by walkers, by visitors from other parts of the UK and from abroad. Little wonder that the number of people using this network has doubled over the last two years as folk begin to understand the opportunities offered by the DalesBus network.
Uniquely in the UK, DalesBus is controlled by a group of volunteers, who manage and promote the service through the Dales & Bowland Community Interest Company, a not-for-profit social enterprise, fortunate in having a number of leading transport and tourism professionals on its board. There are few better examples of how to deliver the Government's concept of a Big Society.
Incredibly, this major success story is now at severe risk. Draconian budgets cuts faced by local authorities and the National Park itself, to save a very modest 20,000 out of North Yorkshire County Council's annual budget for rural bus services of over 6m, mean most of the network could be axed in summer 2011.
This could be at the very time that rising petrol prices cause a massive threat to Dales tourism. Tourist honeypots such as Malham or Grassington, where car parks are already congested, would no longer be accessible without a car on a Bank Holiday or summer Sunday. This could only increase tourism's carbon footprint.
Bus passengers are important contributors of cash in the rural economy. Surveys undertaken in 2010 suggested that on average. DalesBus passengers spend 13 per head on goods and services in the local economy, a massive boost to business in the Dales.
Enabling many thousands of people without their own transport to reach the National Park is also a major boost to health and well being that saves thousands of pounds from stretched National Health budgets.
National Parks in the UK face a major crisis. The most draconian spending cuts imposed by any Government in a generation will cause severe cuts to services and facilities.
This can only reduce the quality of experience for visitors to those magnificent areas. North Yorkshire's two National Parks, with their magnificent landscapes and wonderful walking, cycling and heritage opportunities, are jewels in Yorkshire's tourism crown and major contributors to the success of the county in attracting millions of visitors each year. Cutting funding will mean axing key services, including footpath and access maintenance, information and education, and sustainable transport provision. Damage to essential infrastructure will pose a major threat to tourism in the Dales, putting income and jobs at risk.
But in terms of the popular DalesBus network there is another solution. The Dales & Bowland CIC is currently working in an alliance with a variety of other Dales stakeholders, conservation, private sector, community and statutory bodies, including the Yorkshire Dales National
Park and Welcome to Yorkshire, to tap into a major new Government fund for community-led local sustainable transport projects.
We believe the principles behind the proven success of Dalesbus in 2009 and 2010 can be rolled out into local weekday services in the Dales, improving access for local communities to jobs and services as well as
for visitors, at lower cost, yet carrying far more people than they do at present. This will depend on working with the local transport authority, North Yorkshire County Council, in a genuine partnership project, to create a network of community travel and tourism hubs.
In many cases this will build on work already undertaken by
the county council, but will encourage communities themselves, including local voluntary groups and local businesses, to claim ownership of their own local transport networks, feeding into existing and possibly new mainline bus and rail services to link Dales communities with the outside world and their visitors with the Dales.
Already the concept is exciting local MPs and even Government Ministers.
The challenge now is to persuade the county council that this is the way to go forward, to work with the new alliance to deliver a core coalition Government transport objective.
If we fail, the Yorkshire Dales will be increasingly inaccessible to a large percentage of the population, including many thousands of intending visitors with their significant spending power.
If we succeed, our visitors from Switzerland, Austria and Germany will find a world-class sustainable tourism destination, taking the Settle-Carlisle train on any day of the week, as they now can on summer Sundays, to Ribblehead or Garsdale to catch their waiting bus to Upper Wensleydale or Swaledale, or catching a bus from York or Leeds to Pateley Bridge to travel onwards to Middlesmoor, Grassington or Fountains Abbey. Making it happen is a challenge we just have to meet.