One of the longest and most hard-fought campaigns of Lancaster Bus Users' Group has been that to restore a regular bus service to the east of the city. At one time Lancashire County Council paid Kirkby Lonsdale Coach Hire to provide a half-hourly daytime service on the route that serves Moorlands, Williamson Park, Lancaster Leisure Park, Grab Lane, Lancaster Farms Prison and Quernmore Road.
|New housing development on the route.|
The need for an improvement to this service became apparent when planning permission was granted for large-scale residential development on the site of the former Moor Hospital off Quernmore Road and under a planning agreement, the site developers were required to pay £500,000 towards transport improvements, including an enhanced bus service. The money was paid in March 2012 and at the time could have been used to provide evening or Sunday journeys or to enhance the daytime service with more frequent journeys. But nothing was done.
Kirkby Lonsdale Coach Hire, perhaps hopeful of receiving the developers' money, then decided to
|The former KLCH service on Balmoral Road|
take the service "commercial" meaning that it no longer received payment from the council, but didn't risk losing it through someone else submitting a lower tender. Unfortunately KLCH were unable to make a go of the 18 as a commercial route and the service was reduced from half-hourly to a handful of journeys per day. The County (or perhaps the City?) Council was still sitting on the £500,000 although by now it was becoming apparent that they had other plans for the money
By this time the county council had changed its policy on supporting bus services and despite the fact that this had previously been a supported service - and despite the £500,000 in the bank - declined to take any action to restore the regular frequency.
Some local city councillors, notably Tim Hamilton-Cox and other Green Party members had been fighting to get the original developers' money released for some time but it was at this stage that Lancaster Bus Users Group got involved. It now appeared that the county council had plans to use the bulk of the funding to provide a cycleway along Quernmore Road (which was in the planning agreement) and to improve a major road junction near the Royal Grammar School (which wasn't).The Bus Users' Group was told that no action would be taken to improve the bus service until these works had been completed and paid for and the extent of the improvement would depend on what was left over!
This was, of course, unacceptable and as we seemed to be getting nowhere with county council officers it was obviously time to move up a gear. When the County's then Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport, John Fillis, attended a Bus Users Group meeting our member, County Councillor Gina Dowding (Green Party) got him to agree to meet her specifically to discuss the issue and to invite the Bus Users' Group along as well!
The meeting took place at County Hall Preston in December 2016 and those present included not just senior council staff and Councillors Fillis and Dowding but the County Councillor Lizzie Collinge (Labour) in whose division most of the service ran, City Councillor and BUG member Tim Hamilton-Cox and even Cat Smith MP (Labour). Initially, council officers stuck to the line that the bus service would have to stay at the back of the queue, but faced with such overwhelming opposition, Councillor Fillis instructed them to make "at least £100,000" available immediately and the officers promised that the new service would start in "weeks not months".
|BUG Members, local councillors and Stagecoach managers help launch service 18 at Williamson Park|
The new timetable, operated by Stagecoach, came into force on 6th March, following an official launch organised by the BUG, whose members also distributed timetable leaflets house-to-house along the route.
So was it worth it? Well, judge for yourself: Lancashire County Council has told the Bus Users Group than in the first two months of operation it has carried 4,500 passengers (88 per day) and that the total revenue, including concessions, was £3,100 (£61 per day). The service is already carrying more passengers per day than the previous service carried per week and so can be said to have got off to an encouraging start.
But let's not get carried away. The cost of providing the service is approaching £350 per day (as would be expected for a half-hourly service operating 12 hours a day) so with revenue at £61 the service clearly requires significant support from LCC. New or improved bus services do take a while to build up the increased patronage needed to justify the cost of providing them. The residents of east Lancaster were left without a decent service for a long time and the residents of the new housing - for whom the funding was intended to provide a good bus service - will no doubt have found other ways to travel and it will take time to get them back on the buses.
Fortunately, Lancaster City Council has earmarked developer contributions from all further housing development in the area to support the bus service and one such sum is believed to have already been received, which is just as well as at the present level of use the initial funding will last just about another 12 months.