The country’s Roads and Local Transport Minister has told bus companies in Cornwall they have to provide a reliable service if Government schemes to get more people travelling on buses across the Duchy are to prove successful. Richard Holden MP was in Cornwall on Wednesday to promote an extension of schemes to ease congestion in the county.

Mr Holden visited Newquay Bus Station to talk about the Get Around for £2 and Take The Bus campaigns which aim to encourage residents and tourists to ditch the car and hop on a bus.

Cornwall Council has worked with local bus operators to develop its Bus Service Improvement Plans (BSIP). In August 2022, the council was awarded funding of up to £13.3m to deliver a package of schemes within its BSIP over the next three years alongside the bus companies who come together under the Transport for Cornwall banner, including Cornwall by Kernow, Go Cornwall Bus, Stagecoach, Hopley’s, OTS and Travel Cornwall.

Mr Holden said: “I was down six months ago to see the initial start of some of the schemes in Cornwall – Cornwall’s been a bit of an exemplar really in terms of that close working relationship between the council and the bus companies.

“We’ve seen that since Covid there’s been a real drop-off in bus ridership and in Cornwall the way they’ve co-ordinated with the school buses and the way they’ve got a really close working relationship has protected routes right across the area. Also, I think there is a broader understanding in Cornwall that there is a lot of pressure on the road network particularly during the summer months.

“Anything that can be done to ease that – and make things better for local people and also boosts tourism which is obviously a big mainstay of the economy – is to be encouraged. There seems to be a real desire for partnership here, which I hope is a bit of a model for the rest of the country.

“It shows you can have those really good working relationships between a private operator and the council without having to go down that franchising model that other parts of the country are looking at, which actually puts the farebox risk totally on to the local taxpayer.”

When I said I was meeting the Roads Minister people from Cornwall pointed out on Twitter / X that fare-saving schemes are all well and good but many bus services across the Duchy aren’t up to scratch, especially in rural areas where a number of villages have seen bus times cut if they are even on a route at all.

There is also a problem with reliability, with services being cancelled on a regular basis. What did Mr Holden have to say about that?

“We’ve put a lot of money into the bus fare scheme and extra money for the council to look at supporting individual services. There was a real issue, particularly during the pandemic and just afterwards, with people who had been bus drivers leaving and going and doing other jobs. That has now largely been transformed but we are still working on different measures to make sure we don’t see those driver shortages return.

“Actually, alongside affordability, the biggest challenge for people – and particularly for those who already have free bus passes – is overwhelmingly reliability. If you can’t rely on the service, it doesn’t matter how much it costs.

“We’re hoping that the extra BSIP Plus cash we’ve put in, which is guaranteed for this year and next year, on top of the £13m we gave them for the initial BSIP programme in Cornwall and also on top of the £23m we gave Cornwall for the fares pilot as well [to reduce bus fares] will show we are backing Cornwall.”

So you’ve had that discussion about reliability with the bus companies?

“We’ve had that discussion – literally on the bus here from the airport. When people saw reliability wasn’t there or buses just weren’t turning up, that means they totally lose confidence in the service. Particularly for the elderly and the disabled, that was a real issue. If they can’t rely on it they’ve got to find another way of getting around otherwise they’re stuck at home.

“That’s been the other side of the coin for me. I’ve said I want to back the bus networks, we want to put cash in, we want that £2 fare to encourage people back on the network, but on the other side, you have to provide a reliable service, whether it’s getting to work, going to college or having a day out to see friends and family.”

People have said to me that a double decker bus will turn up at a Cornish village with two people on board, which isn’t sustainable, economically viable or great for the climate. How about changing the system so there are minibuses or smaller buses servicing such areas?

Mr Holden replied: “We’re certainly not against looking at flexibility like that. Some areas have really pushed ‘on demand’ services. I think the truth is that for a lot of these services, what you see at the start and the end of the day is that double decker bus will be full with people going to [and coming back from] school and work. So actually it would be less environmentally effective to have a second bus which you then have to bring on to the network.

“I do understand when people ask that question because it’s a logical question and I’ve asked it myself, but a lot of it is needing the bus for the peak on that route rather than for the non-peak part of the route. It’s usually more efficient to keep a larger bus operating through that time. But what I would say is that we need to encourage people to use those buses during those non-peak times, especially if we can address that reliability issue which I think has largely been done now – there have been tweaks to timetables, the bus driver levels are good now.”

As my five minutes with the minister came to a halt, I quickly asked Mr Holden if he was aware that there’s been a recent protest on the Tamar Bridge asking why people in Cornwall – particularly those living in the south east of the Duchy who use the bridge regularly to get to Derriford Hospital, work, etc – are still paying tolls to cross. There’s a growing call for Highways England to pick up the tab for the upkeep of the bridge because it carries the A38.

He sad: “I’ve recently spoken to [South East Cornwall’s Conservative MP] Sheryll Murray and [Plymouth Conservative MP] Johnny Mercer came to see me in Parliament about this. I’m looking at this overall. We have a very long-standing relationship with the councils on these issues and this is a joint project between Plymouth and Cornwall councils.

“I’m more than willing to have a look at what can be done and have further conversations around it. That’s not to say I’m going to be jumping to immediate nationalisation or anything like that, but I want to ensure the right balance is struck between local people, local need and also the importance of that bridge and its financial sustainability in the long term.”