Concerns for viability of North Yorkshire rural bus services post-pandemic

The Dalesbus at Usha Gap in Swaledale.

Concerns are mounting for North Yorkshire’s rural bus services with passenger numbers remaining well below pre-pandemic rates.

While numerous services were kept afloat across the county with £1.5m of subsidies from the county council before Covid, the county’s transport boss has stated many are now facing “great pressure” due to a lack of passengers.

Bus demand in Great Britain maintained its downward trend in the quarter before the pandemic, falling by 2.7 per cent, according to statistics published by the Department for Transport, but since Covid the number of passengers using North Yorkshire services has dropped by about 30 per cent.

North Yorkshire County Council’s older people’s champion Councillor Caroline Dickinson questioned whether the pandemic had led to a long-term shift in behaviour away from public to private transport.

The member for Northallerton said bus user groups were wanting more bus services in rural areas.

North Yorkshire County Council’s executive member for access, Councillor Don Mackenzie responded by issuing reassurances that the authority had launched initiatives to counter the drop in passengers.

He said alongside the Yorbus initiative, which the authority hopes to roll out elsewhere to improve access to public transport, the council was looking to develop services that were better value for money and more effective as part of its bus services improvement plan, valued at £116m over eight years.

Coun Mackenzie warned the council would always focus its available funds on where it would achieve the strongest outcomes.

He said: “Clearly bus services, like rail services, have suffered as a result of Covid.

“I understand passenger numbers are still well below where they were before Covid came along.

“We’re looking at something like 70 per cent patronage on bus services and because of that the commercial viability of especially rural services remains under great pressure.”

The executive also heard the first three months of Yorbus, its demand responsive travel pilot in the rural area surrounding Bedale, Ripon and Masham, had “exceeded expectations” and achieved the majority of its targets expected at six to 12 months in the first three months of service.

An officers’ report to the meeting stated: “Feedback from customers has, on the whole, been extremely positive, and the high levels of customer satisfaction are reflected in the number of repeat passengers using the service. During the quarter, 98.5 per cent of all completed bookings were made via the customer app and 1,541 accounts were created in the first three months, against a target of 171.”

Coun Mackenzie added: “At the moment we invest £1.5m a year subsidising rural bus services and in addition to that £7m a year on bus passes under the national concessionary travel scheme.

“We are doing plenty for it, but inevitably value for money will come into this. Our ultimate aim is to make rural bus services much more viable by improving patronage.”