Rural bus services will vanish if people don’t start using them again: Neil McNicholas

I LIVE in Yarm, once a market town that many people who don’t actually live here probably still think of as being in the country.

The viability of rural bus services across the country remains in doubt.

True, the countryside is only a short walk away once you cross the River Tees, which runs around the town on three sides, but the view out of my window is the High Street and brick buildings, with only a few trees and definitely no fields.

One of the things I do see every day is a regular stream of single-decker buses that run back and forth between Yarm and Stockton, on average every 10 minutes according to the notice on the side of the buses. The other thing I notice is that most of them are empty, especially as a result of the lockdown and social distancing, but even before that passengers seemed to be few in number.

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I often wonder how the service pays for itself and yet there must be a demand for transport to and from Stockton – either for work or to shop for things that Yarm’s high street shops don’t provide – because empty or not, the buses continue to run.

The centre of Yarm - how can bus services become more attractive to local residents? Father Neil McNicholas poses the question.

I have to hold up my hand and admit that, being a car driver, I can’t even remember the last time I rode on a bus of any description. I don’t think the conductress still clipped the tickets, but doors were still at the back. Yes, it’s been a while.

I qualified for a bus pass some years ago but never applied for one because it would have dried up and blown away in the wind before I would ever have chosen to use it. I’m too used to driving directly from point A to point B, and sitting on a bus whilst it does a circuit of every residential area in creation isn’t my idea of fun or of how to spend half a day when I can drive there and back in a fraction of the time.

Having said that, I can appreciate that for many people who don’t drive or can’t afford to run a car, a regular and reliable bus service is something they rely on whether for work or for shopping, and especially if they live out of town and particularly in a rural area far from services they need to use.

When I was a parish priest in Whitby, I remember the protest meetings that took place between the operators of the bus service that served the small villages and farming communities just south of the town, and the many people who used the service to travel into Whitby for work or to shop because parking was a nightmare.

How can more people be persuaded to leave their car at home and travel by bus?

If memory serves, the company wanted to operate a double-decker to make each trip more profitable, but the problem was that the bus wouldn’t fit under one of the old railway bridges on the route unless it was in the very centre of the road and so they were prepared to withdraw the service altogether rather than continue serving the rural community at a loss.

They were also more interested in fare-paying passengers than those with bus passes. A friend tells me the threat to withdraw the service rears its head on a regular basis.

I appreciate that from the point of view of economy it can be a difficult call for bus operators to try to provide a bus service for everyone who might want to use it, but at some point I think they have to give consideration to what they are: a public service – a service to help the public and not just to line the operator’s pockets.

This is a lesson our high street banks and post offices seem to have forgotten in the ongoing closure of postal and financial services that were important to the community they were there to serve. And so now we have a situation that makes it necessary for people to have to travel further and further afield to find a bank or a post office, and many of them don’t drive or can no longer drive and now have to rely on bus services to take them to the nearest town where banks and post offices haven’t yet been closed.

If the Government wants to encourage people out of their cars, then quite obviously there has to be an alternative means of transport available, and one that is both economical and convenient to use and doesn’t take you round the houses and all day doing it.

Meanwhile the (no doubt subsidised) No 7 keeps passing my house every 10 minutes, mostly empty, and you can’t help wondering how long that situation can be sustained. The phrase “use it or lose it” comes to mind until a new direction for bus policy can be found.

Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.

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James Mitchinson