Opinion: Lakeland's Buses Are Breaking Down

In 2013 Drew Whitworth completed a four-year round of the Lake District's 214 Wainwright fells, all of them accessed entirely by public transport (see UKH interview here). He then got stuck into the 'Outlying Fells', and is currently on his 280th of the total 330 summits. Most have been done as day trips from his home in Yorkshire, a multi-hour commute that has given him ample time to reflect on the state of public transport to and around the Lake District. From the perspective of a car-less walker, it's not a pretty picture, he says.   

My 13th walk, on Fleetwith Pike and Haystacks, took place during the 2010 general election. The Coalition which has ruled since has preached austerity and as a result, made it its mission to cut government spending. There have been many casualties.

Among these is one that might seem trivial. But fellwalkers, indeed anyone with a passing interest in rural affairs, should be very concerned.

"The whole eastern fringe of the Lake District is now more or less inaccessible by public transport"

Haweswater valley  © Bob Bennett
The Haweswater Fells, not so easy for a car-less walker. Photo: Bob Bennett

Until recently the town of Shap, in the east of the District, was connected to Penrith and Kendal (which both have train stations) by several buses a day. But in November 2014 the number 106 bus was cut entirely. According to the operators Stagecoach, the withdrawal of subsidies by Cumbria County Council had made it uneconomical to run. As a result Shap, a town of 1200 people, is now served by just one bus a day from Penrith, and one from Kendal, plus one other elusive service that runs from Eamont Bridge on Thursday mornings and passes the northern tip of the town on its way to Burnbanks, by the Haweswater dam. What this effectively means is that the whole eastern fringe of the Lake District, several dozen square miles extending from Penrith to Kendal and taking in the whole Haweswater basin, Wet Sleddale and the Shap Fells, is now more or less inaccessible by public transport.

"Dave and his fellow drivers at Fellrunner Buses are working for free"

Because Fellrunner Buses’ Burnbanks service is now the last remaining hope of completing my full Wainwright round without using a car, I took one Thursday in November as a walking day and headed for the Naddle Horseshoe, above the Haweswater dam. Catching the service is not a straightforward task. With Fellrunner being based in Langwathby, the service starts there and only skirts the edge of Penrith at Eamont Bridge, so the day began with a 25-minute walk from Penrith railway station to the bus stop. I asked Dave, the driver, whether it might not make more sense to route the service past Penrith station, and then advertise it to walkers as the means by which they could visit Haweswater by bus. He told me that the company have considered it, but there were worries that the bus would then fill up with walkers and the regular users of the bus would not be able to board. I observed that most walkers would get off at Burnbanks however, which is where the bus starts to fill up for its run back into Penrith. “Hmmm, well that’s true” replied Dave, telling me he would mention it at the next company meeting.

Dave the driver has a say in these matters because Fellrunner is run as an entirely voluntary operation. The capacity problems arise because the buses are 16-seat minibuses, the largest vehicles that can be driven on an ordinary license. Dave and his fellow drivers are working for free. The cost of fuel and maintenance is met largely by the funding which — for now — supports free bus travel for pensioners: on the day I used it I was the only traveller who actually paid a fare.

Perhaps this voluntary service is an exemplar of the ‘Big Society’. But as with other applications of that term, what it disguises is the fact that it is now volunteers, not the public sector, who are expected to pick up the scraps the private sector won’t bother itself with.

Great Yarlside, a Wainwright now tricky to reach by public transport  © Drew Whitworth
Great Yarlside, a Wainwright now tricky to reach by public transport
© Drew Whitworth

Most Lakeland bus services are monopolised by Stagecoach, which can cherry-pick the profitable, central routes (Kendal-Ambleside-Keswick and Penrith-Keswick-Cockermouth) and the summer-only Buttermere and Honister services. The rest have been left to die off except where volunteers like Fellrunner are willing to help. It is a cover for asset-stripping, pure and simple.

Some may say that it doesn’t much matter. Few go walking in these regions anyway, so why should scarce public money be used to prop up a service just so purists like me don’t have to use a car? But such arguments miss the key point. Care for a society’s environment involves the management of a wide range of intersecting forces and pressures which include the social and economic sustainability of rural communities, and involves giving some attention to questions of access. The present regime is effectively disavowing responsibility for any of these matters. Cars are great generators of taxes: public transport redistributes wealth. That is contrary to the Coalition’s agenda.

It becomes a vicious circle: services to an area are poor, so people don’t believe they’ll be useful to them, and so plan their journeys using other methods, so aren’t on the buses or trains, so claims can be made about low levels of use and so the service declines further. These were the tactics used in the 1960s to close rail lines under Beeching, and they’re happening again.

"There are too many examples in the Lakes of awful connections, where for want of a little attention to the timetable, things could be made a lot more convenient for walkers (and all travellers)"

Could it be different? Yes, I believe so.

Local councils, even when being cynically and ideologically starved of funds, can still exercise their regulatory role more aggressively. Despite recent improvements, caused entirely by the introduction of the 0758 Trans Pennine Express service from Preston to Penrith, there are still too many examples in the Lakes of awful connections, where for want of a little attention to the timetable, things could be made a whole lot more convenient for walkers (and indeed all travellers). Services could be better publicised, advertised beyond just the glossy bus timetable which one can pick up in the Lakes - and which only mentions Stagecoach’s services.

At the moment these things are not being done simply because there is no will to do them. While tens of billions of pounds continue to be spent on upgrading nuclear weapons, building high-speed rail links to London and offering tax breaks to the very wealthiest, the public library system is eviscerated, citizens’ advice bureaux cease to exist and rural bus services disappear. Whoever wins the General Election this May, things are unlikely to change very much - if anything, they will probably get worse. 

I suspect that not long from now virtually the whole perimeter of the Lake District will be inaccessible by public transport. It is still just about possible for me to complete the 330 Wainwrights without using a car. But anyone wanting to follow in my footsteps will be facing some very long walks on Thursdays.

For a blow-by-blow account of his Wainwrights project see Drew's 214 Wainwrights blog. This includes a handy Walkers' Guide to getting around the Lake District on public transport.


UKH Articles and Gear Reviews by Drew Whitworth

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