Threatened Wellingborough school bus route saved as council rides to the rescue

Pupils travelling to Wellingborough on buses have struggled to get to school

Friday, 29th October 2021, 2:31 pm
Updated Friday, 29th October 2021, 2:32 pm

North Northamptonshire Council has stepped in to ensure that a Wellingborough bus service will continue to run after the previous contractor failed to keep the buses running.

Grant Palmer Ltd had been providing the service from Wellingborough to Wollaston and Bozeat but the service was suddenly withdrawn after the firm said it could no longer run it.

Now, in a u-turn on subsidy cuts made by the previous administration in 2018, the W8 service has received a funding package of just over £14,000 from NNC.

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Bus in Wellingborough - file picture

Schoolchildren from the south of the county travelling to the town had been left waiting for buses that were late or failed to arrive.

The national shortage of HGV and delivery van drivers has been blamed by Bedfordshire-based Grant Palmer.

Cllr Graham Lawman, the council’s executive member for highways, travel and assets, said: “This is a vital route for many people, including school pupils and connecting our communities, especially the rural ones, is essential for keeping people in touch and to help the economy.

"I’m delighted that we’ve been able to work with another bus company to help find a solution, demonstrating our commitment to bus services in the area.”

The operator of the existing commercial bus service, that runs like most other buses without subsidy, advised the council that the service was no longer viable and would cease operation with effect from Monday, November 15. The well-publicised national driver shortage has also been affecting the W8 over recent weeks.

The council agreed a funding package of just over £14,000 and, having sought tenders, awarded a contract to Stagecoach Midlands that allows the service to continue until at least April 2022, with the option to extend subject to ongoing budget considerations.

The council has been able to work with Stagecoach and agree that the new contract can start one week earlier, meaning that normal service will be able to resume from Monday, November 8.

Stagecoach Midlands will run the hourly W8 to the same route and timetable, except that one journey that used to run from Wellingborough at 9am and return from Bozeat at 9.19am will now run five minutes later.

Dave Shelley for Grant Palmer Ltd said: "Unfortunately, like many bus companies through the UK, we have experienced a sudden shortage of bus drivers. This is particularly frustrating as we have been operating throughout the pandemic, and have continued to recruit so that we were ready for normal services to resume.

"Unfortunately, the national shortage of HGV drivers and, less well publicised, the shortage in other areas such as delivery vans, has sucked experienced drivers out of bus companies. In our case, this is despite a 12 per cent pay increase already for our drivers this year.

"Consequently, we have been struggling to operate all of our scheduled services in recent weeks and have had to take the decision to withdraw our W8 service permanently.

"This is frustrating because we have invested heavily in the service in the past two years, in a new bus, new ticketing equipment and, until now, a high standard of operation.

"We have been consulting with the local authority on this, and they have sourced a new operator to provide a service for Wollaston and Bozeat. Unfortunately, they too are experiencing staffing challenges, and will not be able to take over the service until November 8. In the meantime we are endeavouring to provide the service.

"We have a procedure on refunds for tickets that cannot be used, and are already processing those for customers who have submitted them.

"We are both sorry and sad that we have had to withdraw the service like this, but unfortunately bus services cannot run when there is no driver, and this is a problem which has swept through our business very suddenly whilst we are also experiencing lower than usual demand for bus services."

Kayleigh Smith's 13-year-old daughter had been left waiting for hours with her school friends for buses to arrive.

She said: "My daughter had been left waiting hours for the bus to school, which on multiple occasions hadn't turned up at all.

"She left for school in the morning, anxious that the bus service might not be running that day. She had no way of knowing other than to wait with the other students and see if the bus turned up.

"On many occasions myself and other parents have been forced to arrange taxis, which aren't easy to book at that busy time of the morning."

Ms Smith was left with bills for taxis despite the bus pass costing the equivalent of £23 per week.

Mark Whitelocks, managing director for Stagecoach Midlands said: “We are pleased to be commencing operation of route W8 from November 8 and look forward to serving customers old and new in the Bozeat and Wollaston areas.”

Cllr Jason Smithers, Leader of the Council, said: “With COP26 about to start, I’m very pleased that we’ve been able to step in and keep this important public transport route alive.

“We’re committed to keeping communities connected, which has multiple benefits all round for our residents and for businesses.”