A slightly curtailed version of the following letter appeared in the North Devon Journal on 9 August 2012 under the heading “Ideal Chance to Improve”.
First Bus and Stagecoach have competed for custom in north Devon for several years. On some routes, they have duplicated each other’s services. Few will be surprised by the departure of one of them, First Bus, from the field.
Stagecoach’s announcement that it will expand its services following First Bus’s departure is welcome (Journal, August 2). If your report covers the whole story, however, this will not amount to much.
Service X7, you say, will run hourly between South Molton and Barnstaple. It does this already, on the Link Road, without stopping. Does this mean that Swimbridge and Landkey, now served hourly by First Bus, will have to make do with the four buses per day Stagecoach currently offers?
Service X9 will run two-hourly between Bude, Okehampton and Exeter. It gets close to this now. Important as this service is to Holsworthy, however, most of its route is not even in north Devon.
Service 21 will run between Westward Ho!, Bideford, Instow Quay, Barnstaple, Braunton and Ilfracombe. Good. Currently, it bypasses Instow Quay and finishes at Barnstaple.
Service 21A will run between Appledore, Bideford, East the Water, Fremington, Barnstaple and Braunton. It does this now and goes on to Ilfracombe as well. Ilfracombe will simply be served by Service 21 rather than 21A. Unless the buses run more frequently, it will not gain.
A potentially serious loss is not mentioned. First Bus Service 2 currently runs through between Appledore, Bideford, Barnstaple and North Devon District Hospital, providing a direct link for the inhabitants of north Devon’s most populous areas to their most important medical amenity. Breaking it disadvantages especially those who need the smoothest of connections.
That people may be disadvantaged invites consideration of what part public needs play in shaping our bus services. Just now, it appears that all is left to market forces. Potentially profitable routes will be developed. Others will go to the wall.
There is an alternative. It involves steering bus operators towards providing the services the public needs. While deregulation has limited its powers, Devon County Council has long engaged in this. By infrastructure improvements (think of Barnstaple’s bus station), persuasion and selective subsidies, it has ensured that buses in the area serve far more people than market forces alone would allow.
Road congestion, rising motoring costs, the distances people travel to work and the needs of the young, the disabled and the elderly point to the need for good public transport. First Bus’s departure offers a golden opportunity for the Council to work, not just to replace what we have had until recently, but for something better. So far, it appears to have been silent.
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