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A letter from Neil Easton, Public Transport Manager at Northumberland County Council:

Introduction

There will be some changes to bus services S1, T1A, T1B and T1C around Morpeth from Sunday 24th April 2022. This note sets out the background to these changes, what they mean for customers and the work that Northumberland County Council (NCC) officers have been doing in conjunction with bus operators and other stakeholders to minimise and mitigate service reductions during what is a challenging time for the public transport industry.

Background

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on the bus travel market with demand falling to as little as 10% of normal in some places during 2020. To help maintain services, bus operators have received financial support from the Department for Transport (DfT) to partially bridge the gap between running costs and revenue, now in the form of the Local Transport Fund (LTF) that will run until October 2022. However, despite easing of restrictions, patronage and revenue have only recovered to around 80% of pre-pandemic levels. Although there has been significant variation by area, we are unlikely to see a full recovery anywhere due to changes in travel patterns.

In addition to this, funds that we received during 2017 (under section 106 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990) to introduce services to the St George’s and St Mary’s housing developments have now run out. Unfortunately, demand from these places hasn’t met initial forecasts so the services can’t be sustained on a commercial basis (that is, using revenue received from fares only).

As a result, there will be some alterations to services S1, T1A, T1B and T1C from Sunday 24th April 2022, allowing us to maintain important links using funds from our secured services budget. Although there will be some loss of service, there will also be several improvements including more simple route numbers, easier to understand timetables and bigger vehicles as well as earlier morning and later afternoon journeys. We’ve also reviewed fares on these services, as they’ve not changed for several years.

Details of Service Changes

All the changes are described in detail below and new timetables are attached.

  • Service S1 (Morpeth – Hepscott – Stannington – St Mary’s). This service will be re-numbered 436 and will run every two hours in each direction on Monday to Saturday daytimes between Morpeth and St Mary’s via Coopies Lane, Hepscott, Hepscott Park, Stannington Station and Stannington. There will be some earlier morning and later afternoon journeys following customers’ requests, but there will no service to Whitehouse Farm due to low usage. Monday to Friday school time journeys will continue to serve Chantry School.
  • Service T1A (Morpeth – Lancaster Park – Northgate Hospital). This service will be re-numbered 417 and will run every two hours on Monday to Saturday daytimes. All buses will follow the same route in each direction between Morpeth and Northgate Hospital via Lancaster Park, and there will be earlier morning journeys to improve links for commuters.
  • Service T1B (Morpeth – St George’s). This service will be re-numbered 416 and will run every two hours on Monday to Saturday daytimes. Buses will also operate for longer each day, with the first one being earlier and the last one being later.
  • Service T1C (Morpeth – Stobhill Grange). This service will be withdrawn due to very low usage. Alternative journeys are available for most customers on Arriva North East services 2 and 43 or new service 436 (see above).

There will also be some changes to fares because they have remained static on these routes for several years. These changes are designed to maximise revenue (reducing the net cost to NCC of providing the services) whilst ensuring value for money for customers. Adult single fares will increase by up to 50p, but with maximum prices of £1.60 in Morpeth and £2.50 on service 436. Child single fares will be around half the adult rate, but with maximum prices of £0.80 in Morpeth and £1.20 elsewhere. Return tickets will offer a saving of 30-50% on two singles depending on the length of journey.

The 416, 417 and 436 will be run by Rural Link, like the current S1, T1A, T1B and T1C, but with bigger vehicles that have 44 seats and space for up to 29 standees. All other services in the area are unchanged and will continue to run to their existing timetables.

Future Funding Opportunities

In March 2021, the DfT published its National Bus Strategy (NBS) supported by £3 billion of funding to enhance services and get more people using buses. To access this funding, local authorities and operators were required to work together to produce a Bus Service Improvement Plan (BSIP) and establish an Enhanced Partnership (EP).

The North East BSIP was published by Transport North East (TNE) in October 2021 and requested a total of £804 million, which included funding to both protect the established network and improve services. In early April 2022, TNE received an indicative allocation of £163.5 million (including £73.7 million for capital investment and £89.8 million for revenue support) to deliver the BSIP over a three-year period from 2022 until 2025. NCC officers are now working pro-actively with TNE, bus operators and other local authorities to prioritise spending and set up the EP.

Unfortunately, the new funding doesn’t mean that services which have been reduced since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic can return to normal, as the climate remains challenging and the network must be sustainable. NCC officers are therefore working with bus operators and stakeholders to ensure the network continues to meet customers’ needs and encourages people to use buses, whilst acknowledging that services will need to be adjusted to respond to changes in travel patterns and reduced revenue.

Further Information

If you have any queries, if you need more information or if you have any ideas for bus services in your area, please contact Neil Easton (neil.easton@northumberland.gov.uk).

Morpeth Local Services – Timetables (from 24th April 2022)