PASSENGERS are making millions fewer journeys than in 2009-10 on Somerset’s buses, figures from the Department for Transport show.

Across the country, fewer bus journeys are being made, with campaigners saying unreliable service and rising fares are having an impact.

The data shows passengers in Somerset took a combined 7.2 million bus journeys in 2016-17 - 2.6 million fewer than in 2009-10, when the figures were first recorded.

But Somerset bucked the trend for the South West as a whole, with 9 per cent more journeys made across the region.

So why is Somerset such an anomaly?

West Somerset District Councillor Terry Venner, who works as a bus driver, says there are a number of factors which create a ‘vicious circle’.

“The obvious reason for these statistics is the reduction in the number of bus services,” Cllr Venner said.

“Since the statistics in 2010/11 we have seen a number of operators shut, including Quantock Buses and most notably, the shock closure of Webberbus in 2016.

“In West Somerset we have lost routes including the 300 to Lynmouth, the 298 to Tiverton, the Minehead Town service is not the same, and the same is happening elsewhere in the county.”

Cllr Venner said a lot of the problem stemmed from making bus routes financially viable for operators in such a rural area and covering fairly remote villages.

“When free bus passes for pensioners were introduced it was a lovely idea but it is problematic for firms,” he said.

“If they are only getting £3 out of every £5 for that journey, via subsidies, it means running services which only cater for a limited number of people, such as buses to Winsford or Exford, are likely to provide limited returns for an operator.”

However, Cllr Venner says the cutbacks in public funding subsidies helps create a ‘vicious circle’.

“Less subsidies means less routes are financially viable and get cut - this leads to less passengers which means more services have to get cut,” he said.

“The figures do not surprise me. 

“Unless more public funding is found I fear it will continue to decline.”

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One of the services affected by the Webberbus closure was the Minehead to Porlock route, which was saved from being cut after hundreds of people turned out in protest and local town and parish councils stepped in to help fund the service.

Across England, the number of bus journeys taken decreased by 4 per cent, with large drops across the north and the Midlands outweighing an increase in usage in the south.

Dawn Badminton, the England director of Bus Users UK, said local authority funding cuts have led to many subsidised routes being stopped.

She said: “Local authorities have had to take some really tough decisions.

“Withdrawing that money means that we have lost services, usually in areas where ridership is not high, such as in rural communities. 

“I don’t think we will ever get back to the levels of service we have had previously.”

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The figures also show that between 2009 and 2017, the average bus fare in England - excluding London, where public transport follows a different model - increased by 34 per cent.

Over the same period, the cost to bus companies of running bus services increased by 15 per cent for every journey, but the revenue earned increased by just 8 per cent.

The average number of journeys taken by each person in Somerset dropped from 19 in 2009-10 to 13 in 2016-17.

The number of concessionary journeys taken by elderly and disabled passengers also decreased by 46 per cent.

Ms Badminton said the poor reliability of some services has led to people choosing to run a car, rather than rely on public transport.

She said: “It affects everyone, from a young person trying to get to school and meet up with his mates, to adults going to work and more elderly passengers getting to their doctor on time.

“We know of some communities that have been practically cut off. They try and support people through community transport, but that can’t always offer the same coverage.”

Melissa Whittaker is the co-lead of Everybody Get On Board, a Somerset-based campaign to try and increase the use, and availability, of public transport.

She says it is clear from the Department of Transport’s figures that the government should be looking to expand the London model for public transport in other areas.

“As demonstrated by the figures released, the London model for public transport works, and shows that other areas should be given an equal level of priority, funding, and, preferably, enthusiasm which is in fact free,” Mrs Whittaker said. 

“Unless I’m incredibly misinformed, London is not the centre of the universe, and we all require an integrated reliable transport network, otherwise our communities will continue to suffer.” 

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Mrs Whittaker agreed with Cllr Venner that the reduction in passenger numbers and associated increase in the costs of running services, had a direct correlation with subsidies being reduced. 

“It means for some commercial services to remain viable, they require financial support,” she said.

“The alternative is stagnation. It is no coincidence that town centres are in a state of decline, when members of our communities cannot reach them at peak times such as evening, weekends and bank holidays.

“It also actively creates barriers for people to access work, education and provide support to loved ones who do not live within walking distance.”

Mrs Whittaker was critical of the government and local authorities for their ‘over-reliance’ on community and voluntary-led transport schemes, such as Atwest or Wiveylink.

“Community-led schemes are contingent on driver availability, and the willingness of the local authority to rely on them shows a complete lack of understanding of the needs of the community, which is consistency,” Mrs Whittaker said.

“We have engaged with Somerset County Council, and have been waiting for three months for a response to a series of questions and options put forward to them. 

“The solution is not just money but a genuine willingness to engage and act as opposed to be ‘seen to be doing’. 

“The concept of a precept would alleviate some financial pressure as no part of our transport budget is ringfenced.”

Just a week ago, Somerset County Council announced changes to its transport “policy and practice” in order to find more than £350,000 worth of savings over the next three years.

The council has achieved its target of saving £2.11m on transport in the 2017/18 financial year, in light of a falling grant from central government, but still has to find further savings between now and 2021, when any form of support from Westminster will be gone.

One of the proposals already adopted will see changes to education transport, including the gradual roll-out of changes in how children can be taken to and from school on public transport.

These changes were approved by the council’s children and families scrutiny committee in March following a public consultation, and will be phased in later in the year.

A spokesman for Somerset County Council said: “In rural areas like Somerset there often simply isn’t enough demand to run regular bus services.

"That is why, despite huge pressure on our budgets due to continued Government cuts, we still spend £3.2 million every year to subsidise routes which are not commercially viable.

"We have also come up with innovative solutions to keep communities connected where there is low demand, such as demand responsive transport or community-led initiatives.”