Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Somerset bus service in jeopardy.

One of Britain's best known bus services could be about to join the great charabanc rides of yesteryear. The iconic 300 service from Minehead to Lynmouth traverses the high Exmoor coast – often using an open-topped double-decker bus – but now it could be terminated for good, thanks to a cost-cutting programme by Somerset County Council.
A campaign has been launched in a bid to save the unique service while the operator says he's bewildered by the threat by the county council to withdraw its subsidy.
    One of the most iconic bus journeys in the region,  the daily 300 service on an  open-topped double-decker from Minehead to Lynmouth
    The daily 300 summer service on an open-topped
    double-decker from Minehead to Lynmouth
     
As is so often the case, the story is more complex than meets the eye. The 300 service – which climbs Porlock Hill to run across the wild purple heather moors of Exmoor's coastal escarpment – is popular and profitable in summer, but helps fund far less successful local services throughout the year.
"The problem is that all the services we run west of Minehead are cross-subsidised by money we make on the 300 over three months in summer," says Stephen Morris, managing director of Quantock Motor Services which operates the service.
"Part of the issue here is that this was always considered a socially desirable service and, despite the fact the economics aren't commercial, the county council issued a contract for a company to run the 300 service and pay them to so do.
"We are three years into that seven-year contract," added Mr Morris. "And on the strength of that we bought a new bus and refurbished an existing one. Now the council seems to think it can just walk away from that. We've invested heavily."
Mr Morris went on to tell the Western Morning News that the 300 is regarded as more than just a bus service: "It brings a lot of people in – it's good for business on Exmoor. Hikers love it. It gets national exposure and brings huge publicity to the area."
One businessman who says he is in "a state of shock" by the threat of the 300's closure is Mark Sanders of remote Culbone Inn, at the top of Porlock Hill.
"What's most disturbing for us is that we are about to grow – we are building careers and have two management positions available for two young people from Minehead who don't drive. It could mean these guys don't have a career here," he said.
"We understand in winter months it's difficult from a commercial perspective, but in terms of what it offers to our area, this bus service goes so much further," added Mr Sanders, who told the WMN that at present five out of nine employees use the bus to get to and from work.
"That bus has featured on logos and other places – it's famous," he added. "We're in shock that it might shut down – which is why we've helped start a petition."
Exmoor National Park Authority has also joined the affray. Sustainable economy officer Dan James said: "The 300 coastal link service, as well as the 401 Exmoor link for which funding is also proposed to be withdrawn, are popular services which enable people of all abilities and backgrounds to enjoy the wonders of the national park in a sustainable manner.
"The 300 service is one of the most iconic journeys in the region, if not beyond, and provides a vital link to the South West Coast Path," he added.
"The loss of these services, in addition to cuts in previous years, will have a significant impact on the area and will affect local residents, visitors and businesses alike."
Back at his Wiveliscombe head office Mr Morris was yesterday pondering the future for his company: "I'm still in a dilemma about what to do," he said. "I love the service – I want to keep it running. Maybe we can in some different format, but it wouldn't be such a comprehensive service for the villages and local people if we don't get the subsidy."
Speaking as the Somerset County Council's consultation period on bus closures continues, cabinet member councillor Harvey Siggs commented: "It is a hugely difficult decision, but we just will not have the finances to keep subsidising services as we do. Subsidies can be as much as £11 per passenger on some routes.
"There will still be an extensive bus service in Somerset with specialised services for the elderly and vulnerable, vital links to education and health and no changes to the most popular and important routes on the network."
Somerset County Council's consultation ends on January 13. For details and comments visit www.somerset.gov.uk/bussurvey, or call 0845 345 9155. Anyone wishing to sign the Save the 300 petition can visit www.theculbone.com.

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