Passenger transport in isolated communities

Written evidence from Rural Community Council of Essex (TIC 028)

RCCE (Rural Community Council of Essex) is an independent charity helping people and communities throughout rural Essex create a sustainable future. We have been working with local community groups, Parish Councils, Village Halls and Community Buildings across Essex to address some of the issues they face, since being established in 1929.

RCCE is an influential voice for rural communities at local and national level. We enjoy strong working relationships with Essex County Council, local District and Borough Councils, and DEFRA. As one of England's 38 county Rural Community Councils, we are a member of ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England). Together we aim to meet the needs of 11,000 rural communities nationwide.

1. How do Government and local authorities identify demand for passenger transport in isolated communities (including rural and urban areas and island communities)?

1.1 Essex County Council (ECC) uses Accession mapping software, which uses the latest census data to map access by public transport to key services for both rural and urban areas. ECC holds meetings with commercial operators, key stakeholders and the voluntary sector to identify demand and improve services. Area reviews have been carried out to give a more detailed assessment of needs. The needs identified for each rural area vary and the resulting outcomes reflect this. For example, weekly Braintree shopper bus services improved access to local market towns. In the Dengie Peninsula* a Demand Responsive Transport Scheme** (DRT), initially DaRT 99, followed by DaRT 5, was introduced.

[*The Dengie Peninsula is a particularly remote and isolated area of rural Essex, bounded by the sea to the east and the Blackwater and Crouch rivers to the north and south. The low population density and isolated nature of the area make provision of conventional bus services difficult, having lost most of its commercial operations since 1985 and the county council increasingly having had to contract services.

**A DRT scheme is a taxi-bus service which operates a core route but can be booked in advance to pick up from a passenger’s house from outlying areas. Services can be timetabled or fully flexible within an operating period.]

1.2 ECC have contracted RCCE in the past to conduct independent area reviews which included extensive bus passenger surveys. RCCE collated, analysed the results and presented them to ECC, however these contracts have stopped since the council cutbacks.

2. To what extent are the needs of different groups of passengers (e.g. people with disabilities, older people, young people) taken into account in determining the provision of public transport to isolated communities?

2.1 Essex County Council say when looking at requests for additional services and making decisions over replacing withdrawn commercial services, each case is considered on its merit and the particular situation of specific service users/groups are considered in reaching decisions on service provision along with costs. In a more general way ECC uses ‘Accession’ accessibility mapping software to identify the ability of people in different groups (employed, elderly registered disabled etc.) to access key services ( shopping, employment health and education). They use this formation to help shape service decisions. Again, the independent area surveys conducted by RCCE under contract fed into this process until 2011.

3. What are the main challenges associated with providing better and more consistent bus and rail services to isolated communities? How can these challenges be overcome?

3.1 With regards to buses, by their nature isolated rural areas have small populations whose travel needs are not easily aggregated into a financially sustainable commercial bus network. Contracted bus services can easily become unsustainable due to demographic shifts or rising costs. In addition, it is more difficult to manoeuvre large buses around narrow lanes where potential additional passengers may be (who are unable to get to the main route). Even DRT is made less sustainable due to the high levels of dead mileage and escalating fares impacting on demand. Therefore public transport in these areas will always require public funding support in one sense or another. Within this, kick-starting DRT services ( and thus removing some or all of the entry cost barrier to service provision) is possibly a better approach than long term service purchasing, if sufficient attention is paid to the marketing and organisational structure of the services. Either CT or taxi services can in theory make use of this approach, but in either case an excellent understanding of the potential market and its needs is necessary. Flexibility is a key factor, and the ability to call in additional vehicles (as the Essex DRT scheme is run by a taxi company) has proved invaluable.

3.2 For rail it is arguable that many of the same arguments apply. There are not enough passengers to make improved rail services economically viable and if they are considered socially necessary, then public funding will be required to keep them going. As there is no real equivalent to the DRT approach, long term financial subsidy (either directly by service or cross subsidy through franchising) is unavoidable. In its absence, Beeching style cuts are unavoidable.

3.3 Connectivity is an important factor, ensuring services are useful in their timings and connecting to other bus/rail services will attract more users, making services more viable. The DRT 5 provides a rail header service, connects with a main route bus service and the other DRT service DaRT 99.

3.4 Reliability is a key area of concern. Some operators run an unreliable service, either not investing in their vehicles so that buses regularly breakdown, or not enough staff to cover for absences, leaving passengers stranded, and leading to potential bus passengers using other means of transport (such as a car if they have access to one, which can be more costly when taking petrol and parking into consideration), lifts, taxis, walking or not making journeys at all. Other knock on effects are missed appointments eg. medical, costing the NHS. There is little recourse for complaint with commercially run services. Individual complaints to bus companies hold little sway, the county council has no jurisdiction over a commercial service, and people are often unaware of where else to go to complain.

3.5 Low-level passenger flows in sparsely populated areas prevent large bus operation from being commercially viable. Subsidy is needed to get services like DRT off the ground until they are capable of being self-funding.  Another key issue is competition, while good in the sense of driving forward savings, no sensible operator will risk starting a rural route, where once he/she has developed the trade, any competitor can just start up alongside, thus diluting the route back to a non-profitable operation. Rural PTEs can help in this regard, where some control of route licensing is practised.  This will reduce the need for subsidy in many cases, as operators would then be able to risk running new services to rural communities, knowing they could one day reap the rewards of the initial investment made. 

3.6 Examples of how these challenges can be overcome.

3.6.1 In Essex on the Dengie peninsula a group called Dengie Hundred Bus User Group (DHBUG), is an excellent example of good practice of members of the community coming together to influence service provision. They formed in 2010 as a result of the withdrawal of a bus service from most of the village of Althorne but at their inaugural meeting, it became clear that there were plenty of other issues in the Dengie, including the punctuality and reliability of the bus service and inadequate services to many of the villages. Their achievements include having set up a partnership with First Group to monitor and improve the performance of the bus service and they meet with them regularly, they influenced the introduction of a new service which filled a long-standing gap in the timetable; have the facility for the public to file reports on their website; took part in the consultation process for the Essex County Council local service contract; worked with the Community Rail Partnership to improve access to rail stations; influenced the provision of the DRT scheme to additional areas; liaised with the County Council and the bus operators at times of road closures and displayed posters relating to alternative arrangements, e.g. during Carnival, to provide information to encourage people to continue to use the bus. They hold public meetings twice a year which are very well attended, and invite some influential people to speak and take questions, including Giles Fearnley, Managing Director of First's UK Bus Division and Stephen Morris, Deputy Chief Executive of Bus Users UK.

3.6.2 The DRT scheme in Essex has overcome some of the challenges discussed above. Initially the service (DaRT 99) was established in May 2011 to improve access to two hospitals from the Dengie area. The service offers a fixed link between Maldon, neighbouring Heybridge and Chelmsford hospital, with a demand responsive service to outlying villages in the Dengie Peninsula. It runs between 0600 and 2100 Monday to Friday. Fares are set above the comparable bus journey, reflecting the additional convenience and comfort of the service and to avoid undermining the commercial indirect links (involving one or more changes). Concessionary bus passes are accepted. The service received one-off £65,000 ‘kick start’ funding from the LAA Partnership via RCCE, following a competitive tender exercise carried out by RCCE. It has seen increasing passenger use and viability over the period and from May 2013, the service went fully commercial.

3.6.3 The success of the D99 and the expiry of service contracts led to the development of another DRT service in the area, the D5, which serves the most isolated parishes in the Dengie. It replaced a conventional bus service which gave 4 off-peak return journeys on Monday - Friday and two return journeys on a Saturday to the local town. DaRT 5 is a fully flexible service, available from 0600 to 2000 Monday - Saturday. All journeys must be pre-booked at least one hour before travelling and passengers must be prepared to change, as the service feeds into other bus and rail services. The service was introduced following extensive consultation, which highlighted a desire for greater choice of times and destinations. The service was expanded in October 2012 to meet demand from a neighbouring community.

3.6.4 Passenger numbers have grown significantly. The previous D5 service carried an average of 5 passengers per weekday and 1.5 on a Saturday. In July the average number of passengers per day was 59, and the cost per passenger is now down to around £3.13p. 91% of passengers are concessionary travel pass holders. Users are deciding to make more use of the service and are introducing new customers. For example, a single journey from a Residential Park to the Conservative Club started off as one person travelling once per week; now there are 4 or 5 travelling daily. A few of the new users previously used taxis. Some commuters use the service from the villages to the local station. Feedback has been very positive, with specific praise for the regular driver.

3.6.5 The service allows individuals who were previously isolated to go out and be part of the community. There are a number of older people who were unable to walk up the hill to the nearest bus stop and were therefore unable to access public transport. The wide net of the DRT service has removed this problem and they are now regular travellers, using the service to access shops, medical facilities, clubs and social events. One lady is currently in the situation where she is unable to drive or walk any distance. The door to door nature of the service has been invaluable to her. Another elderly lady said that previously her family and friends had to do all her shopping for her; now she can do her own shopping. She said it has "opened up my life again" and has enabled her to choose her own food, improving her diet and consequently her health.

3.6.6 Conventional buses are often seen as a meeting place by older users. One concern of introducing DRT was that there wouldn’t be the same opportunity to socialise. A pattern of group booking is emerging from elderly people and people are using it to go out socially.

3.6.7 A recent Age UK report highlights the importance of bus travel to not only accessing services but to contributing to the quality of life for older people (http://eprints.uwe.ac.uk/16946/). The service may extend the time individuals can live independently, reducing health and social care costs. This saving is difficult to monetise, but the cost of delaying progression to more costly care has been valued at £181 per week (£9,412 per year). The cost of an individual moving to a care home is valued at £27,000 per year. Therefore, If only three people are prevented from moving into a care home, then this service will reduce the overall cost to the public purse.

3.7 The DArT works in the Dengie Peninsula because:

· Demand can be met – the population size is small and therefore demand is limited. 27% of the population is over the age of 60, and 8% over the age of 74. 3% of households do not have a car and rely on public transport (population stats from 2001 census).

· Operator buy-in – the operator believes, and is determined to prove, that DRT is the solution to public transport in rural areas. It has invested both time and money into the schemes over and above the contractual requirements. A dedicated operator and driver are used, a new vehicle purchased, and the operator has engaged with communities to promote the service. Additionally, a free service was offered to customers in the area on Christmas Day. The high quality of service provided has ensured the service is self-promoting.

· Customer buy-in – the previous service only partially met needs and was poorly used. Consultation on the new service started over a year before the change was introduced; there were some enthusiastic and hardworking advocates of the new service within the area (DHBUG).

· Lessons learned from the D99 and D5 DRT service are noted. The service is not appropriate for running with larger buses, as they are unsuitable for driving around estates or turning in car parks. D99 has a different customer base; people attending hospital for treatment tends to be short term, therefore there is a high turnover of passengers and a constant need for marketing to attract new passengers. The service is not available to cover all shift patterns and is therefore limited in being an attractive travel option for hospital staff.

3.8 The DaRT has been nominated and shortlisted for two National Transport Awards.

4. How effectively do Community Transport services address the needs of passengers in isolated communities? How could Community Transport be improved?

4.1 Currently Essex County Council supports 12 community transport schemes across Essex; most are run as independent charitable organisations, although one is run by a district council and one is currently run in house by Essex County Council.

4.2 Community Transport schemes provide transport for individuals who cannot access conventional services, whether due to restricted mobility or living in isolated areas not serviced by public transport. The quality of service provided is high, being personalised, flexible and reliable. As a result, CT has a very high user satisfaction rating. The annual cost to the council is £1.3 million.

4.3 Essex County Council current strategy sees Community Transport as providing a safety net for those unable to access local bus services and thus filling in areas where conventional local bus service provision is not practicable.

4.4 Most CT schemes provide a range of services. These include:

~ Dial-a-ride services – demand responsive individual journeys usually carried out by accessible minibuses and often by professional drivers.

~ Social Car services – volunteers using their own cars to provide journeys, only receiving expenses in return.

~ Vehicle Brokerage – working with a range of different organisations to make their vehicles available for group hire during ‘down’ periods

~ Community Buses - Registered local bus services, using larger vehicles and in the main paid drivers run under a Section 22 permit, often with a semi DRT element.

4.5 The model employed is heavily dependent on the use of volunteers, both to driver and to perform ‘back office’ functions. As schemes grow, an increasing degree of professionalisation is required to manage the additional complexities of operation and ensure reliability. However, there are limits to how far such a business model can grow due to their reliance on voluntary support. All the schemes struggle to recruit new volunteers; often due to exacting behavioural standards required to allow a person to transport vulnerable people.

4.6 Currently Community Transport schemes receive a grant made under Service Level Agreement with ECC and in some cases with district councils, which set targets for passenger numbers, performance and value for money.

4.7 The number of passengers travelling using Community Transport in some districts/boroughs has declined; this is thought to be in part due to the impact of the provision of free transport on local bus services. Older passengers, who make up the majority of community transport users, can travel on local buses for free. Though the cost of using community transport is subsidised, charges are made and passengers would like to be able to use their concessionary pass and travel for free. Section 22 licences and registered bus services have allowed some of the schemes to introduce travel which is free to the users, being reimbursed by the concessionary fare scheme.

4.8 Coverage by CT schemes is patchy – not all areas in need have a service. As schemes are independent there is no consistency in how they run and operate, although some flexibility is useful to account for local needs, a more consistent approach would help users to better understand and access the services on offer. The fact that some schemes have Section 22 licences and allow passengers to use bus passes while others don’t make it confusing. Consistent regulation would be extremely beneficial.

5. To what extent should passengers in isolated communities be expected to rely on taxis and other demand-responsive transport services?

5.1 Given the low number of individuals living in isolated communities providing services commercially is not an option and therefore will always be reliant on the local authority providing financial support for services. This is not a statutory requirement and given the current economic pressures is becoming more challenging.

5.2  Taxis are cost prohibitive for many people in isolated areas, plus there may be limited supply in some areas. Nor can concessionary passes be used in taxis. DRT can work very effectively in some areas where it is appropriate. 

6. What are the main challenges associated with funding transport services in isolated communities? How can these services be made more affordable?

I’ve covered this question in previous answers.

August 2013

Prepared 23rd September 2013