Shropshire on-demand bus service first step in ‘transformation’ of public transport network
A new on-demand bus service launching at the end of the month marks the start of a public transport overhaul for Shropshire, the team behind the project has said.
The service is set to begin operating in two ‘zones’ on the fringes of Shrewsbury, including areas which are not on any current bus routes, with buses only sent out when passengers have booked.
The pilot scheme will allow Shropshire Council to assess how its ‘Connect On-Demand’ model works – and, it hopes, to win over the public – before rolling it out across the rest of the county.
James Willocks, the council’s passenger transport manager, said: “The ambition here is for Shropshire Council to really get public transport into that place where it becomes the first choice of travel for people in Shropshire and a realistic alternative to the car.
“We have got public transport that has been there for generations. Numbers had dwindled before the pandemic and have dwindled even further since.
“We want to provide a good service for the people who already use it and see how many more people we can bring to it.”
While it doesn’t want to step on the toes of commercial operators, the council says the new buses will be used to cover areas not currently served by public transport and replace timetabled routes the council already has to fully fund as they are not profitable.
Boris Johnson's 'bus revolution' sparked the idea
Richard Davies, transport development team leader, said the idea was first floated after previous prime minister Boris Johnson launched his £3 million bus ‘revolution’ in 2021, inviting local councils to bid for funds to transform services in their areas.
While the authority’s £98m bid was ultimately unsuccessful, Mr Davies said: “It gave Shropshire Council the opportunity to look what it could do to improve public transport across the county.
“Currently we have got some services that are timetabled that are poorly used, but also some urban areas where there is no existing public transport currently.”
One of those areas is the new Oteley Road development in Shrewsbury, which is the focus of one of the first two pilot zones for the on-demand service. It will also take in Meole Brace Retail Park.
The other trial zone is more rural, taking in the Longden and Pulverbatch areas all the way up to Lyth Hill Road in Bayston Hill.
Mr Davies said: “The existing 546 follows the main road to Pulverbatch and comes back. We have added in additional stops at Exfords Green and Church Pulverbatch which haven’t been served before.”
Passengers can book their journeys to or from any stop in either zone, as well as four extra destinations – Shrewsbury bus station, railway station, the Square and Beeches Medical Practice in Bayston Hill.
They will board a new electric bus – the first in the county – or a smaller diesel vehicle designed for more rural journeys. Another eight-seater electric minibus will be sent out when fewer passengers are expected.
Mr Willocks said: “This is very much about delivering a blue chip service to this area. We want to transform public transport because we want to make it accessible to people and bring new people to it, so it’s there for future generations.”
He added that the council would be taking feedback on board once the service is up and running, and was open to amending the operating hours and adding or moving stops.
'Something we have never had before'
Rather than following traditional timetables, buses will turn up only when booked through a new app. People will also have the option to phone up between 10am and 2pm, though all passengers are encouraged to book in advance to help ensure the right vehicles are sent to the right areas at the right times.
And those waiting for their bus to turn up will be able to check the app for real-time updates.
Mr Davies said: “The way we can communicate with passengers is something we have never had before.”
The council says the new approach opens up opportunities to look at public transport differently for new developments in the county, including new settlements planned for Tasley and the former Ironbridge Power Station site at Buildwas.
Mr Willocks said: “We have already been in to talk to Buildwas.
“It’s about having the right tool for the right job, so it depends on the size of the development, but it is absolutely a real option for the right developments.”
The trial starts at the end of this month in addition to existing buses, and will offer passengers the chance to try the new service for free until the full launch on December 4, when it will replace the current 544 and 546 routes.
How Shropshire could benefit from scrapping of HS2 northern leg
Scaling up across the county will take time, and will be done on a zone-by-zone basis.
Mr Davies said: “It’s important each zone has its own identity as it moves forward. The principles will be the same but the stop options will change and what we offer has got to be unique to each individual community.”
It will also depend on funding – but a boost could be on its way after public transport in the county was mentioned in the list of potential projects to receive funding from the scrapping of the HS2 northern leg last week.
Deputy council leader Ian Nellins said inclusion on the list was a reflection of the council’s efforts, and those of local MPs, to get the county’s need for a public transport overhaul firmly on the radar of the Department for Transport (DfT).
Councillor Nellins, who holds the council’s environment and transport portfolios, said: “We see this as the way forward for a lot of areas. I think residents are initially a little bit hesitant but we know it’s working in other urban and rural areas so we have just got to demonstrate that.
“I think it’s fantastic we are going to be running a zero-emission electric bus and some low-emission diesels, and a zero-emission eight-seater to complement that as well.
“Our long-term aspiration is to demonstrate this not only to our residents but also to the DfT so we can attract more funding to roll it out across Shrewsbury and across the whole Shropshire Council area.”
The plans for the service have come together with the help of a cross-party working group, including Liberal Democrat group leader Roger Evans, who represents Longden.
He said: “We need more people to use our buses and to reduce reliance on the car. This is a way we can deliver a bus service in a way that’s affordable both for the passengers and for the local authority.”
Labour councillor Rosemary Dartnall, who represents Bayston Hill, Column and Sutton, which includes Oteley Road, has also been involved in developing the service.
She said: “We need to provide a service to people that already use the buses – a good, reliable service that is better than what we have now – and we also need to engage new users.
“For the future of public transport this is a big step forward, it’s a very different bus service and I think people will engage with it well and find it a convenient way to travel.”
The new service will operate from 7.30am to 6.30pm Monday to Saturday. Fares will be set at £2 for a single, £1.50 for children and young people aged 19 and under, and concessionary bus passes will be accepted.