With rural buses in long-term decline and a funding crisis putting several routes at risk, a surprising service has appeared on the English transport menu: the No. 46 bus to Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons.
Raymond Blanc’s famous restaurant and hotel in the heart of the Oxfordshire countryside might not appear like classic bus territory. The Michelin-starred establishment’s seven-course dinner with matching wines starts at £350 per person. head and rises to a little above DKK 1,000 if you want to drink the good stuff.
The last bus back to the city at 1am, however, could save a couple of extra £1,000 on an overnight stay – or at least prevent an argument over who is the designated driver after washing down that Cornish lobster and new season lamb with a last glass of premier cru.
Although the hotel states that some customers do come on board, especially if they arrive first by train, the bus service is primarily for staff. The hospitality sector, like many others since Brexit and Covid, has struggled to fill vacancies and the service allows rural areas to tap into a pool of workers from the city.
Route 46, which was launched earlier this summer, is financed in roughly equal parts by the celebrity chef, the county council and passenger fares. Fares cost £3.50 one way, with discounts bringing the price down to £2 for staff traveling regularly, and the seven-day hourly bus can be tracked online as it runs from Oxford through neighboring villages to Le Manoir in Great Milton some 10 miles away.
The partnership has not only led to the rebranding and extension of a well-worn route to the luxury hotel, but has also allowed the Go-Ahead-owned Oxford Bus Company to invest in two new low-emission buses for the route.
A decade of cuts had reduced the area’s patchy access to the city to one daily service. With Blanc’s grant and the municipality’s input, the buses now run every hour. The route, which takes in the less affluent Cowley area of Oxford and the villages of Horspath and Wheatley, which lost buses in the last decade, partly replaces a former Stagecoach route that was deemed unviable.
The funding deal will guarantee services for at least three years – giving other rural residents access to jobs in Oxford, as well as bringing people in the other direction to work at the hotel. Passenger numbers have reportedly been strong so far and exceeded the bus company’s expectations.
Beyond the business case for attracting employees and the welcome addition to community connections, Blanc’s input has been driven by another pressing need. Le Manoir intends to expand its premises significantly and needs to reassure its village neighbors that these plans will not cause more traffic.
A spa and a training academy are planned. Sustainable Transport helps it meet Section 106 in planning applications – which detail measures a developer must take to reduce their impact on the community.
In what have been desperate years for buses, every little bit helps. According to the Campaign for Better Transport, more than a quarter of bus services in England have disappeared in the last decade and the rate of attrition has accelerated during the pandemic. From 2011 to 2019 the total number of kilometers for bus services decreased by 10%then by 18% in the following two years.
The fall was initially driven by the collapse of local authority funding from cash-strapped councils which had been subsidizing services deemed socially necessary. Oxfordshire county council was a good example: in 2011 it spent just over £4m supporting buses; in 2019 the budget was zero.
Paul Tuohy, chief executive of the Campaign for Better Transport, said: “Local buses have seen more than one decade of funding cuts which has left many places, especially rural areas, without usable service.”
Commercial services have since been most exposed. After the pandemic started, emergency government funds kept many routes alive, but operators have withdrawn others. More could disappear when government recovery subsidies expireafter an extension of the funding until September.
The pandemic came at a cruel time for a sector that had finally persuaded the government to announce a proper one national strategy and 3 billion GBP in investments by the self-proclaimed bus lover Boris Johnson. Unfortunately, the vast majority was then designated as emergency funding as the revenue disappeared and the regions were then forced to bid against each other’s improvement plans to win the remainder.
Oxfordshire was one of the relatively lucky regions, awarded £12.7m. However, imaginative partnerships have long been in place with Go-Ahead and commercial firms: its Oxford arm also piloted a demand-responsive bus service, PickMeUp, which ultimately ran out of cash. Oxford Bus Company said the 46 to Le Manoir “demonstrates what can be achieved when key stakeholders work together”.
Elsewhere it has been a bleaker picture – exemplified by the story earlier this year of a pensioner, Alan Williams, who stepped in with a £3,000 offer to fund the X53 route to his home in Bridport, which was due to be rejected by FirstGroup. However, the 78-year-old managed to save the Sunday service after his generosity attracted wide publicity.
Campaigner Tuohy added: “Raymond Blanc obviously sees the business benefits of a good bus service, but it shouldn’t take individuals to fund what should be a public service. The Government needs to do more to support local buses so that all communities and businesses can benefit wherever they are.”