There is at present, as I am sure most readers of this column will be very aware, a certain amount of controversy about proposals for removing public subsidy from the least used bus routes in Dorset.
The County Council is actually going about this in a very careful way – and, while I think it is inevitable that under current circumstances we cannot go on expecting council taxpayers to fund all of the least used services, we shall be able to find more affordable alternatives in many cases. It is reassuring to see that both County Council officers and councillors themselves are being imaginative and pragmatic in their attitude. So I am optimistic that the eventual conclusion will be considerably less controversial than is widely supposed. I shall certainly continue to work with the County Council in an effort to ensure that we do end up with a sensible outcome for the council taxpayer and for those in rural villages that might otherwise be stranded.
However, this whole episode has made me think it would be at least worth trying an experiment if we could find a little bit of one-off funding to get it going.
The experiment I have in mind would be an attempt to reverse the cycle of decline in a small number of transport corridors.
My thought is that, at the moment, when small numbers of people use a particular bus service, the natural reaction is to reduce the frequency of the service and also to avoid investment in new buses, in the hope of reducing costs and losses. The result, of course, is that the bus service becomes even less used, as it is less attractive and less flexible and people move to other forms of transport. This, in turn, increases the losses and creates pressures for further reductions in frequency and therefore its investment – and so we go round the mulberry bush until at last we end up with a position in which more and more of the rural services are less and less flexible.
I wonder whether one could reverse this entire cycle of decline by investing a restricted amount of money on a one-off experimental basis to increase the frequency of a particular service to the point where it is highly flexible and then invest also in new buses for that service, equipped with wi-fi, comfortable sets and all the rest of it, so that the service also becomes a highly attractive alternative to the car even for those who have cars and can drive them. If one thinks of the number of drivers who purposefully choose to use trains instead of driving themselves around the country, I think one can get a reasonable feel for the potential market if a particular bus service were as frequent and flexible as the services in cities and were also as comfortable as driving one’s own car.
Of course, I don’t know whether this would work anywhere. And I certainly don’t think it would work everywhere. But I rather think that there might be some places where it could work quite surprisingly well. And, if it did work then – instead of a cycle of decline – we would establish a cycle of growth with more and more commercially viable services for more and more people providing a pattern for the future.