Exeter’s Stagecoach bus services are still in meltdown, but that’s not the only problem. The whole county network needs rethinking.
For at least a year now Exeter’s bus services have been not fit for purpose. I wrote a piece in Exeter Observer about this and won’t repeat that here. There may be more to say after the Traffic Commissioner’s enquiry into Stagecoach South West planned for 27 October in Bristol.
Meanwhile, bus planners could do worse than rethink their whole service pattern. The bus industry is not renowned for radical innovation – doubtless in part due to the expressions of outrage from many bus users when faced with change – but there are other approaches to services in Devon that could usefully be, at least, explored.
As noted in my Exeter Observer article Devon County Council (DCC), as the local transport authority, has committed to carry out a review of the network. This is significant because DCC funds many bus routes, particularly in rural areas.
The other important bit of context is that getting public transport into a state where people will prefer it to their cars is a priority if any of Devon’s – and particularly Exeter’s – net zero carbon targets stand any chance of being achieved. The county’s Bus Service Improvement Plan stated that increasing usage was key,
Which means making it more attractive to use the bus rather than the private car.
Here’s one suggestion: Replacing linear rural routes with circular ones to increase service frequency.
Most bus services in the Exeter hinterland are linear, that is they run from a specific place in a broadly straight line to the city centre. Because of the current lack of patronage these services are infrequent, sometimes only one service each way each week.
The 679 Black Dog to Exeter service, operated by Dartline and funded by DCC, is one of several examples. Its timetable is here. If you want to go to Exeter by bus you have to travel on a Wednesday morning and come back the same day at lunchtime. Er, that’s it.
Who on earth is going to abandon the car in favour of a bus with a service like this? DCC and operators need to increase frequency to multiple services every day, if modal shift – and the consequent reduction in cars entering Exeter – is to stand a chance.
(For those unfamiliar with Mid Devon this map may help understand what follows.)
Such an increase is not impossible if the Black Dog linear service is reimagined into a circular route, serving not only all the villages on the existing 679 timetable, but connecting at Crediton with the every-15-minutes Stagecoach 5 service to Exeter, then continuing on to Shobrooke, then on to the A377 west of Cowley – again connection with Stagecoach 5 – and then north on the route to Thorverton and Cheriton Fitzpaine (currently one daily Exeter service on each of Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday) and Witheridge (currently Wednesday and Friday only), whence it would go on to Black Dog and the circle begins all over again.
Based on the existing timetables, the circle should be achievable in about 2.5 hours, which would allow 2 buses – one in each direction – to make a minimum of 3 trips each day.
A real attraction could be the addition of a 4th round trip timed to give an evening out in Exeter. This need not be every day.
I don’t know nearly enough about the economics of running bus services to be able to cost any of this.
So what are the local advantages of better bus services? First, they would connect up more villages to one another, strengthening community links. In turn, this should increase the market for local retail businesses – if I live in a village with no food shop, why go to Exeter if I can get to a nearby village by bus?
Second, having more buses gives greater flexibility in travel choices. Excluding Crediton, the population of the settlements joined up by this route is around 8,300 . So there is a market to be tapped.
This proposal won’t on its own solve Stagecoach’s Exeter problems in the short term – yet another set of city service changes comes into operation at the end of October. But it could be a step toward the wider BSIP objective of increasing bus use, which would if achieved:
- reduce car traffic in Exeter
- speed up the buses (fewer traffic jams)
- reduce carbon emissions and air pollution, and
- make services less dependent on public subsidy (which is not a “good” in itself but is going to be part of a necessary trade-off for as long as we have barking mad governments in London).
Note 1 This is a back-of-envelope figure based on the 2011 Census figure of 8,200. The general uplift of population in the Mid-Devon district shown by the 2022 Census (detailed village results are not yet published) is 6.5%, though much of this will have occurred in the larger towns such as Crediton, Cullompton and Tiverton. So a fairer uplift figure for the circular route villages would be nearer 1%, giving an estimated 2022 population of 8,286