In many ways, Risborough Area Community Bus is much like any other local bus company, running timetabled routes for fare income.
The surprise is that the Buckinghamshire not-for-profit charity didn’t evolve into its current form, but that the style of operation was a happy accident, when in 2010, it was set up with both a Section 22 Community Bus licence and Section 19 because its founder wanted a ‘belt and braces’ approach.
The outcome has been remarkable. Risborough Area CB, as a result of this foresightedness, has not had to face the problems of many CTOs, starved of cash by ever-decreasing grant aid and local government funding streams by successive central government cuts. Instead, focusing more on fare income, it seems to have weathered the storm.
The little green bus which has been serving its community since 2010 arose from a study in 2004/5, when the two Risboroughs – Monks and Princes – faced service bus cuts, routes being finished at an alarming rate because councils faced with central government funding cuts could no longer subsidise them. Risborough Area Community Action (RACA) was formed to report back, and confirmed that the communities were facing a problem. The question was, what was the solution? So RACA asked 3,000 local people, who overwhelmingly said they’d use a community bus if provided.
So, in 2008, RACA set up a project group to plan community bus services, carefully assessing the routes which would have the biggest impact, deciding on company structure and finding ways to pull together the 30 volunteer drivers it would need. Remarkably, it achieved its aims within less than two years.
The first bus – a 14-seat low-floor Bluebird Tucana – was jointly funded by grants from the EU LEADER fund, SEEDA Rural Access to Services Programme and Wycombe District Council’s Section 106 fund, plus smaller grants. In parallel, RACA had decided on setting up a limited company registered as a charity, and plumped for Section 22 licensing.
In July 2010, services began.
From the ‘off’ the RACB was a ‘hail and ride’ service with only one permanent stop, in Princes Risborough. Passengers simply flag down the bus as it travels along any of its six routes, and pay a flat fare of £1.50 or £2 depending on route. As was to be expected, the majority of fares were concessionary, but RACB was ready for that.
RACB not only collects the concessionary fare rebate from the council (around 50p per £1 fare), but also claims Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) for its mileage. Fare records are kept via a simple Wayfarer ticket machine, and reconciled. Together, these incomes have been instrumental in RACB’s survival and, it could be argued, ensured it remains focused on growing its passenger numbers.
Minibus Options visited Princes Risborough to see the bus in action, and met up with Chairman of the RACB Management Committee, Peter Johnson: “That it was a great business plan from the start is underlined by the fact that we’re still using it,” said Peter. “In our first week, we had 70 passenger journeys. By November, this had grown to 400 journeys.
“More recently, we have stayed at around the 1,500 to 2,000 passenger journeys a month. The core of our user group uses the bus three times a week.”
The six services are provided with the single vehicle. The three core routes operate all day, with either five or six round trips to outlying areas. Three other routes are slotted between, each with three round trips, out to areas which have lower user frequency. Late afternoon runs on two of these routes run only if a customer calls to request a trip.
Peter paid tribute to the volunteer drivers – a recent recruitment drive saw seven more sign up – but said this is partly a result of keeping demand on them very low. There are 30, which allows RACB to just ask them to do one morning and one afternoon run, plus a ‘tea-break’ hour (to relieve the crew on changeover) every month. Any more, says Peter, and the number of volunteers willing to help would fall.
The drivers are rostered by Georgina Carlin, who works for Risborough Area Community Bus as a freelance. Similarly, RACB retains a self-employed accountant, reducing complex employment issues which could cripple the organisation.
The drivers are all MiDAS trained, with regular retraining. The bus gets a 10-weekly safety check in addition to normal servicing.
Fares are not the only income for RACB. Not only can groups hire the vehicle in evenings, but RACB organises day trips targeted at elderly people who may not otherwise have an opportunity to get out of the house. Typically, the day trips involve a paid-for lunch, or go to a local tourist attraction or garden centre. Surprisingly, perhaps, one effective fund-raiser is a small donations box on the bus – though the collection isn’t huge, what it says about those who appreciate the bus services is far more important.
RACB’s first vehicle was a 14-seat Bluebird Tucana – a ground-breaking low-floor built in Yorkshire by the now-defunct Bluebird. It was based on Volkswagen’s dependable Transporter T5, and heavily engineered to produce the large, low-floor saloon. It’s a design so well-regarded, when Mellor Coachcraft took over Bluebird, they continued to build Tucana. But after seven years and with around 154,000 on the clock, RACB felt it was time to upgrade.
“We’d done a lot of head-scratching about the funding,” said Peter Johnson. “Then along came the Community Minibus Fund…”
The fund was launched in 2015 by the Department for Transport, pledging £25 million in full-capital funding for community buses. Needless to say, RACB applied for their share…. and were successful.
RACB sorely needed the low-floor aspect in their second minibus simply because they operate fare-stage so having weighed the various options, they decided on EVM’s Low Floor – a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter-based minibus in which the centre section, just behind the driver position, has been cut out and replaced with a low-floor saloon area big enough for a wheelchair to be carried safely.
“To be honest, at the time we applied we’d raised almost enough money to purchase a new vehicle – money which can now be put to another use,” said Peter. That said, the funding from the CMF had a £10,000 shortfall which had to be plugged to pay the £84,000 cost of the EVM Low Floor.
It’s a superb vehicle, says Peter, well-liked by drivers and passengers, easy to drive and very flexible. The low-floor section is useful for semi-ambulant people, with extremely low step height. Tip-up and fixed seats in this section mean they need not go up the additional steps to the rear saloon. Wheelchair passengers can simply roll up the ramp and sit facing the rear against a special bulkhead support, and can also be secured with a safety belt. The minibus has many refinements, including a full-sized destination blind, essential for stage carriage work.
The vehicle will have a busy life. It will be driven around 100 miles a day, or 30,000 miles a year. With Mercedes-Benz underpinnings, however, it should have a trouble-free life.