BUS passengers are reeling from the shock of finding out that their town centre service is being axed.
The sudden brutal reduction in service provision will leave residents living on the eastern side of town with a two-hour window in which to travel to and from Alton on weekdays and with no service at all at the weekends.
Furthermore, according to residents, there has been no public notification, even though the change in provision is to happen in just 10 days time – on July 23.
The new timetable will see changes in timing for the 13 Basingstoke-Alton-Liphook service and the 38 Petersfield-Alton service, to reflect a change in Alton College opening from September when students will start at 10am.
This decision will see the removal of the Nursery Road/Edward Road loop, currently covered by the 38 bus.
Furthermore, while the 65 will continue running hourly between Alton and Guildford, it will revert to travelling along the High Street, Normandy Street, via the railway station and Anstey Road, leaving the Wootey and Manor estates without a town centre service.
The alternative offered by Stagecoach is the introduction of a new number nine service to replace the 38 and 65 town centre routes, but this will only operate for two hours Monday to Friday, offering four round trips between 10am and noon.
This service will serve one of the most deprived areas of East Hampshire – an area where a large number of people are elderly and/or can’t afford to run a car.
Explaining the decision, Mark Turner, commercial director for Stagecoach South, said: “The service changes in Alton have become necessary due to increasing issues with reliability on our services, particularly the 65 which faces congestion in Guildford and Farnham and needs more time to complete the journey. The only way we can address this is to enter Alton via the direct route.
“The history of the problem dates back to when Hampshire County Council were forced to reduce their expenditure on tendered bus services and the then town service was withdrawn. Since that time Stagecoach have made efforts to plug the gap with buses coming in from neighbouring towns but this has proven unreliable and un-sustainable.
“The replacement service nine is all that we can offer using resources available between college runs as the income is very low from the town.”
The news has come as a real blow to residents. Those waiting at a bus stop on the Manor estate on Tuesday were despondent. None of them could walk the one-and-a-half miles into town, and they were concerned that a two-hour service would not give them enough time to do their shopping, let alone attend medical and other appointments. They were deeply disappointed that they would be unable to get into town at the weekends without hiring a taxi, which costs in the region of £5 one way (the bus costs £1.35 for a single ticket).
The bus, they say, is not only used by senior citizens, but by those with mobility issues, mums with buggies, and folk going to work. They feel badly let down and isolated, and worry about being unable to access normal services and community activities.
While most of them have bus passes, they say they would be prepared to pay for a regular town centre service, running at least six days a week and taking in the key places like the health centre, hospital and train station.
Ward councillor Derek Gardner is angry, saying the cuts will hit those least able to cope.
“Traditionally, former council estates like the Manor were built on the fringes of towns which can make access difficult, especially for those who can’t afford a taxi or who do not have family or friends to give them lifts.”
He believes that, with the population due to expand, cutting the town centre bus service is the last thing Stagecoach should be doing, and that the offered alternative is bound to fail.
“How can you expect to operate a service for just two hours? That is no good to man nor beast,” he said.
One way forward, Mr Gardner believes, could be to find a way of sourcing a community ‘hopper’ bus to service the town centre.
Alton district councillor Robert Saunders has been looking into that possibility with Community First, which has a licence to provide public bus services and, he says, is “keen to explore potential gaps in bus service provision”.
And he added: “Community First also operates the current ‘on-demand’ Alton Dial-a-Ride and it may be possible to expand this service to cover gaps. I understand that town councils have previously provided funding to maintain services.
“The recent Bus Services Act allows local authorities bus franchising powers, including the ability to determine and specify the bus services to be provided in an area, with bus operators bidding to provide the services. This will allow local authorities to specify the services that passengers want and deliver an integrated network of services with co-ordinated timetables. I would urge Hampshire County Council to consider taking up these discretionary powers.”